Opinion: Why wearable tech will change how health is delivered

When some people think of wearable technology, they often consider devices such as Bluetooth headsets. While this is certainly true, the modern expectation is that a wearable device for the medical industry will not just perform a function but will provide information that aids healthcare professionals based on sensor data.

It is in this area that healthcare will benefit in the coming years, in a market that will provide telehealth solutions to millions of patients worldwide. In fact, a January report from Californian research firm IHS forecasts that the global telehealth market will grow tenfold within five years, with telehealth driving global revenues to $US4.5 billion in 2018.

Clearly, the healthcare industry is facing some challenges with adoption but happily, Australians are always keen adopters of new technology and the same is true in the wearables market. A recent survey from Kronos indicates that 30 per cent of Australians use wearable devices in their personal lives, which is 50 per cent more than their US counterparts. In fact, 43 per cent already use them at work. This adoption rate practically ensures a smooth transition to wearables for health and fitness use.

In my opinion, it is healthcare providers who are best placed to encourage the use of wearable devices, both as a care solution and as a means of improving health in a fresh and new way. There are several reasons why patients would listen to their doctor’s recommendation ahead of commercial advertising or word-of-mouth.

  • Patients trust their healthcare providers in a way that cannot be achieved by traditional companies seeking to sell products and services
  • Doctors will select the best solutions for their practice and for the patient
  • Doctors can use such technologies to encourage the patient to take a proactive approach in their well being.

Fitness bands were perhaps the first popular devices that provided useful information, but primarily for those engaged in cardio activities such as running. Depending on the type and model selected, they can record the number of steps taken, pulse and heart rates and more, transmitting the data to your smartphone using Bluetooth or using ANT+ for those with bicycle computers. Such data is useful when shown to doctors and can aid diagnostics although they are not specifically designed as medical devices but for monitoring general fitness.

However, the principle for many of these devices is the same: data is transferred to a portable device, whether smartphone or laptop, and can be analysed at a later time. In most cases, smartphones are the likely interface for those on the move, while home users often use Wi-Fi to transfer data locally and to the cloud for storage and reporting.

I would take a very calculated guess and say that there will be a time where the patient will upload the data and it will end up on the health professional’s screen. There are many possible variations so that is the reason why direction from knowledgeable healthcare professionals is required.

Concentrating on wearables – rather than other telehealth benefits such as remote access to clinics using video – devices already on the market that enhance patient care include:

  • Glucose meters that allow clinic alerts and remote monitoring – especially useful for elderly diabetics
  • Devices that monitor vital signs such as blood pressure, pulse rate, temperature, electrocardiogram data and more – imagine the time saved on clinic hours if all of this information is gathered remotely
  • Devices and apps that allow patients to monitor their diets – a virtual coach that recommends diet according to cardiovascular risk levels.

There are many other devices available for specific ailments and purposes but all serve a common goal – to provide healthcare data and to monitor patients’ vitals in a way that saves time while still improving doctor-patient interaction.

For example, if you are treating a patient for high blood pressure and have prescribed medication that is having a desired effect; do you really need several clinic visits to follow it up? Normally, yes but with wearable computing, blood pressure is constantly monitored and can even aid in identifying situations that raise blood pressure. By analysing the data received, the time of an incident is read instantly and all without travelling to the clinic. The patient is happy and the clinic’s treatment room is free for another patient. A win-win situation?

Australian practices and clinics need to embrace this technology sooner rather than later, as the benefits outweigh possible costs and training. Whether it is convenient access to patient information, guided surgery (Google Glass can cater for both, for example), recovery and therapy tasks, careful selection of devices and apps can reduce clinic visits, patient costs and clinic hours per patient.

The adoption of wearable tech can also improve efficiency in a manner that ensures more clinic time is spent on seriously ill patients or in treating those that require immediate help.

There is a lot of work required to implement the right processes, workflows and guidelines for such aspect of care, but it's there for all to see that mobile devices, centralised data analysis and health professional interventions are the way of the future.

Rob Khamas is an eHealth solutions strategist with REND Tech Associates.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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