Are wearable devices wearing thin? Or do they have a broader application?


Wearable devices has been the big thing for several years now, but have they really ever taken off, and is there a future for them? Kate Bass investigates

wearable devices

It wasn’t so long ago that we were excited about watches that monitored our heart rates. Now we’re amidst an explosion of wearable technologies that measure and track not only heart rate, but also distance walked, calories expended, body fat, sleep quality and so much more. Such devices stole the limelight at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show, and the value of tech companies marketing these products has rocketed, with some now worth billions of dollars. However, a Greenlight survey of 100 senior marketers found that 70 per cent think that wearable devices are more hype than substance.

Future or fad: are wearable devices disposable?

The rapid growth in sales of wearable devices indicates that they have certainly engaged consumers – more than 70 million devices were sold globally in 2014. An online survey conducted by Havas Worldwide of more than 10,000 people across 28 global markets, confirms that people do generally like the idea of wearables, with 54 per cent saying that a digital device that monitors every aspect of their physical health would be a good thing. Furthermore, many users of fitness trackers say that being able to monitor their activity helps make keeping fit more fun, and the daily targets provide incentives to go for a walk or a jog to ensure the requisite number of steps taken or calories burned have been achieved. However, the data also indicated that, after the initial novelty factor, wearables are not typically worn long term; less than half of people who own a wearable device use it on a daily basis.

Although focused on wellbeing and intended to influence lifestyle choices such as physical activity, nutrition and weight loss, wearables are generally not associated with a sustained change in behaviour. Wearable technologies do not actively reinforce healthy behaviours and, consequently, any benefits they offer in the short term are not maintained, so the overall benefit is poor. In addition, wearable devices tend to be bought by people who are already keen to maintain their fitness levels. Thus, to date, wearable technology appears to be a gimmick that is ultimately not benefiting society at large.

However, several large employers have seen the potential of wearables to encourage worthwhile health benefits and have provided employees with fitness trackers, and set up company-wide fitness challenges to maintain the wellbeing of their workforce. BP has already distributed 24,500 devices to staff and dependent spouses this year. In some cases, staff can use the tracking-device data to prove a healthy lifestyle and earn reductions in their health insurance premiums. This rings alarm bells for some, as it could be seen as an enforced invasion of privacy for staff eager to save money. Similar schemes are also directly available from insurance companies in both the US and the UK, which offer benefits to policy-holders who can demonstrate using wearable-technology data that they lead a healthy, non-sedentary lifestyle. A global survey conducted by Accenture revealed that 63 per cent of insurance executives believe that wearables will have a significant impact on the industry, and will be widely used in determining premiums within just two years. This highlights the need for caution, to ensure that the current sharing of personal data with insurance companies remains optional and doesn’t become a pre-requisite or hindrance to gaining insurance.

Personal data and the privacy issue

Dr Andrey Ostrovsky

Dr Andrey Ostrovsky

Schemes involving sharing highly personal data collected by wearable technology are also fraught with concerns about privacy and data security. Data from wearable devices, albeit not on an individual level, has already been sold by insurance companies to third parties. If wearables are to become an addition to routine healthcare and integrated into everyday life, measures must be taken to ensure that details of an individual’s wellbeing can only be accessed by the intended recipients.

Looking to the future, wearable technology does have the potential to revolutionise healthcare if implemented properly. Dr Andrey Ostrovsky, who has led teams at the World Health Organization and United States Senate focused on using technology to strengthen health systems, believes, ‘… chronic disease is a great opportunity for wearables, especially in detecting acute or chronic decline’. Similarly Dr Karandeep Singh of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School explains, ‘… critically low blood sugar in a diabetic, a large weight gain in a patient with heart or kidney failure, and a fever in a person with a compromised immune system are all scenarios where a wearable that enables two-way communication with a health professional would be a game-changer. As clinicians, we are used to seeing patients with our own eyes and ears. We need to embrace wearables as our sixth sense when caring for complex patients.’

Dr Karandeep Singh

Dr Karandeep Singh

These may just be opinions, but there is also evidence-based data supporting the value of wearable technology in identifying at-risk patients. For example, a recent study by Northwestern University in the USA showed that an app monitoring mobile phone usage and GPS location identified depressive symptoms with 87 per cent accuracy, more reliably than the questionnaire routinely used to diagnose depression.

Unfortunately, the currently available wearable devices are not intended for clinical use and so no clinical validation or data standardisation procedures have been followed. How accurate are the metrics they provide? Currently, the form in which information captured by wearables is presented varies widely between devices and can only really be used by the wearer to meet fitness targets. The future of wearable technology depends on the data it collects being used more constructively to help wearers and associated health professionals make more informed decisions regarding their health. Systems need to be developed that allow the data captured by wearable technologies to be routed appropriately so that useful interpretations can be made and actions taken, rather than information simply being stored on a remote server.

The need for an improved infrastructure

IBM’s Watson – the first commercially available cognitive computing capability that can analyse high volumes of data and process it in a ‘human-like manner’ – is leading the way. In collaboration with a leading US pharmacy, Watson is to be used to collate and interpret a vast array of healthcare data from diverse sources, including wearable technology, to promote a proactive reduction of health risks through modification of lifestyle choices and to provide tailored, all-round care for patients with chronic disease.

Although this is a step in the right direction, there a still remains the issue of providing unlimited access to wearable technology.

The cost of wearable technology may preclude many from being able to own a device and, with health systems worldwide already facing multiple healthcare challenges, reimbursement for wearable technology is unlikely to be available in the near future.

Currently, wearable devices are typically used on a casual basis to support personal fitness regimes. However, with the growing trend for offering lower insurance premiums to customers with a healthy lifestyle (as determined by wearables), the use of such devices may increase for financial gain. Wearable technologies also have the potential to provide valuable information to facilitate healthcare decisions, but as yet the infrastructure required to realise this potential is not widely available, and healthcare providers are unlikely to invest in widespread provision of such devices until the benefits have been proven.

About the author

Kate Bass has a BSc in biochemistry and has worked in medical communications since 1999. She is a freelance writer with a particular enthusiasm for medical and healthcare topics. Kate has ghost-written numerous research papers for medical journals and writes regularly for News Medical.

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