Getting to Medical Grade in Wearable Technology – by David Bell

What started as a murmur in the hushed halls of some medical and technology giants may soon become a roar.  The idea of using wearable consumer-originated technology for medical use is advancing rapidly.  But there is significant research to be done, and significant issues to overcome before research becomes a reality.

The term “activity tracker” now refers mostly to the wearable fitness devices that have been available to the consumer market since the early 2000’s.  These were an extension of the early heart rate monitor, and even bicycle computers that monitored speed, distance, calorie count and so on.  The idea, in both the medical and technological world, is to take the next step and create devices that can be used for medical grade assessment and management of medical conditions.  Wearable devices can track literally everything, from exposure to sunlight, physical activity and sleep patterns.

Samsung, Qualcomm and Apple, to name but three, are all in the race to create the most effective and accurate technology for the medical market.  All are focusing on managing different diseases, and all are focusing their medical solutions around their own technology products.  This lack of joined up thinking – although one could argue the case for the individual business – means that when medical solutions are ready for market, any hospital, clinic or indeed patient could be looking at major investment before having access to the correct solution for the inividual or medical issue in question.  If that individual has two separate medical issues, he or she might require a Samsung phone and tablet to monitor data from one wearable, and an Apple phone and tablet to monitor data from another wearable.  The return on investment for Government and medical organisations will surely have a major effect on how and when this technology is able to move forward.

Accuracy is also an issue.  At a recent meeting with the Head of Innovation for a Global Pharma company, the four identical trackers he was wearing were producing four different results on every metric.  Plenty has been written regarding wearables, and how each different product can provide you with different data at the end of each day – even on steps taken, let alone medical issues where accuracy could literally be a case of life or death.  Peoples ages, their gait, their own technical ability, can all have an effect on technology.  Human error has the potential to completely change how the data looks and is acted upon by a medical professional.

Another major issue, which still seems undecided, is how the medical profession will manage and keep safe patient data.  Privacy and security concerns loom large.  Privacy advocates worry that as patients upload potentially intimate health information into gadgets and apps, there aren’t enough protections to prevent the data from being misused.  Even if this is overcome, the data from each device or patient would still need to be merged with other medical data for each patient.  Another potential headache.  Unless a medical professional can access a patient’s full medical records, how are they to assess the uploaded data from a wearable and make good use of it?  The key is that medical data is not directly linked to an individual should it be hacked, so for example a blood pressure reading itself is harmless enough, but if it’s got your name on it, it becomes a major data breach.

Is it more of a worry perhaps, that patient’s will have access to their own medical data?  This could go wither way.  For some, self-diagnosis and monitoring will lead to appointments being missed with medical practitioners, thereby exacerbating their medical complaint.  With others, access to such data could lead to panic and a level of self-diagnosis that leads to more regular visits to the Doctor.

This brings us to medical approval.  If we are to use these devices to diagnose, prevent, monitor and treat disease then we need Government to give the green light.  This seems, today, some time away.  Health and privacy laws that protect patient data don’t apply to the makers of consumer devices currently, so the legal process alone is long and arduous.  To move to a law (Internationally) that covers all medical data, no matter what it’s source, is time and expense indeed.

So where next?  The key is for developers and medical professionals to understand that patient ‘buy in’ is there.  As individuals we have to be both willing and able to make changes to our own health monitoring, and want to take more responsibility for our own health.  Compliance is also key.  How exactly does the idea come off paper and in to daily use?  And, of course, who is going to pay for it?

ROI in the rapidly growing wearable space is still an inexact science, at best.  Many healthcare providers feel it’s there, but they just can’t quantify the financial ROI precisely, say, in the same way a business could calculate the ROI horizon of a new heating system or sale of a car.  The real ROI has to be in patient engagement, one of the most important elements in modern health and healthcare.


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