In today’s health care philosophy—ideally, at least—prevention rules the day. Doctors and patients are increasingly aware that proactive strategies, most often involving diet and exercise, are fundamental cornerstones of a healthy life and implementing them practically often becomes the focus. Although reacting to symptoms and treating existing disease remains critical, we also look to monitor and pre-empt wherever possible. Now tied to this broader attention to prevention are new ideas and developments in the tech industry that could soon deliver wearable devices that collect biometric data on people, monitoring and reporting back blood pressure data, glucose levels and beyond.
Another way of putting it is: If recent developments in Silicon Valley are any indication, you may soon be hearing terms like “wireless health care,” “body computing” and “health-oriented wearables” a lot more often.
More Data, Readily Shared—But Accuracy is Key
The exchange of patient data between doctors and patients is an area that can benefit from additional strategies, and companies like Google, Apple and Samsung are exploring how to incorporate health IT features into wearable devices. Patients may soon provide information to doctors through devices such as smart watches that can measure and transmit biometric data. Health IT wearables will open a digital conduit so that, for instance, doctors can more readily monitor patients with chronic conditions while also cutting down on the need for office visits.
The first generation of wearable devices from companies like Fitbit and Jawbone collect information that people find interesting, like the number of steps walked, but have somewhat limited use from a health perspective. These devices and the technology they use were never validated for accuracy and the metrics they measure are not scientifically proven to have wellness benefits.
For wearable devices to be accepted by physicians, they need to be designed with absolute precision, the kind expected of their clinical counterparts. If this happens, physicians would likely welcome a new generation of scientifically valid wearables, since the high volume of data generated by such devices may lead to new ways of identifying disease symptoms, measuring wellness and discovering nontraditional vital signs.
Most people spend their time outside of hospitals and wearable devices will give doctors data on how lifestyle affects a person’s health. Given the huge installed base that the leading tech companies have, even limited use of wearables among their users could create useful data sets. You don’t need much adoption or much continuous use to create a database that doesn’t exist for medicine anywhere. For example, if you have the largest database of 18-year-olds’ heart rates and blood sugar and activity, you’ve got a very powerful data set.
Wireless health is one solution to the challenges of providing health care for all in that it puts the patient at the center of the health care discussion. Tech companies are uniquely positioned right now to create continuous engagement with their users. Medical companies do not have that reach.
In Development PC World reports that Apple executives met with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December to discuss mobile medical applications. The company is rumored to be developing a smart watch with health IT functions and has hired staff with backgrounds in medical sensor technology. The FDA’s 2013 calendar noted that Google met with agency representatives as well, and Google developed and is testing a prototype contact lens that can help diabetics monitor their blood sugar by measuring glucose levels in tears.
Samsung and the University of California, San Francisco, recently established a lab on the school’s campus called the Center for Digital Health Innovation to test and validate medical sensors and digital health technologies.
What Will Attract the Public?
To get people interested in using health-oriented wearables, the devices need to offer data that users can learn from, and to do that the data these devices would collect could be integrated with features from other applications so that, for example, a user could get content on what foods to eat to increase blood sugar if it got too low. Ultimately, people want well-designed, reliable consumer products that fit into their lifestyles. The major tech companies have an opportunity to make a big impact on medicine, because if wearable health devices take off, health care really will not function the same way. We’ll see not only more sophisticated preventative care, but more remote care as well. Patient-monitoring outside the hospital is an exciting idea, since after all that is where we spend most of our lives.