Wearable medical devices might have started out as a trendy, fashionable accessory that people would wear to impress their friends. But over time, they’ve become so much more than that. From monitoring remote patients to analysing health and lifestyle patterns to detecting chronic conditions, these small yet mighty devices have proven themselves to be not only life-changing, but in many cases, lifesaving too.
While early wearable technology was predominantly aimed at fitness tracking and displaying messages and calls, the gradual rise in modern technologies such as Big Data, machine learning, Cloud computing, and AI has seen their functionality diversify considerably.
So, just how are smart watches, wearable ECG and blood pressure monitor and biosensors transforming the healthcare industry?
Until recently, people with debilitating conditions were often confined to hospitals, due to the sheer size, weight, power requirement and complex nature of many medical devices. However, thanks to the development of wearable medical devices in recent years, these people are increasingly able to monitor their conditions from the comfort of their own homes and improve their quality of life.
This is possible because patients now have the ability to wear the device, record data such as body temperature and heart activity and send this directly to their healthcare team. This then enables them to assess the data for patterns and irregularities, whilst also seeing if there’s a link between sleep patterns, physical activity or food being consumed during this period. It can also alert them to emergency situations like heart attacks, seizures and respiratory distress when their patient requires emergency medical care.
Some wearable medical technology can also offer additional safety and confidence to remote patients with fall detection features, which can notify family and emergency services of an incident and provide a location.
Another way this technology is making positive change is by speeding up the diagnosis process. Conventional ways of checking vitals, such as blood pressure and blood sugar often required doctors to carry out complex, invasive procedures on their patients, and often the results were not instant. This could mean it took far longer for them to get to the root-cause of an illness or pain, which could delay diagnosis and treatment.
But today’s wearable medical devices have reduced the need for these invasive procedures and can provide real-time results, meaning that healthcare professionals are able to diagnose, treat, and monitor their patient’s illnesses more quickly and efficiently than before. In some cases, this doesn’t require the patients to even visit their doctor in person, which can help to reduce some of the strain on the healthcare industry. A study by Business Insider revealed that patients wearing medical devices can save doctors as much as 15 hours each week.
Cloud connectivity within some wearable medical devices is also able to update electronic medical records automatically, which reduces the risk of misdiagnosis and the wrong medications being administered to patients.
Wearable devices are also playing a key role in addressing the coronavirus pandemic, by enabling healthcare providers to track coronavirus symptoms, such as fevers, oxygen saturation and breathing patterns, exhibited by patients both remotely and in real time. This has understandably made it easier to reduce the spread of the virus.
Thanks to this increased convenience and accuracy and reduced strain on the industry, experts have predicted that these devices could lead to global healthcare savings of around $200bn over the next 25 years.
Wearable medical technology is not just for those with complex medical illnesses and healthcare professionals. With the general public becoming more health and wellbeing aware, devices such as smartwatches and FitBits have become more mainstream. In fact, the usage of wearables has grown considerably in recent years, from 9% in 2014 to 33% in 2018, according to a recent survey by Accenture.
By giving users enhanced control over their health, these devices can encourage the introduction of healthier lifestyle choices. Recent research by analyst firm, Gartner, found that 10% of people who use wearable technology will have changed their lifestyle to some extent by 2021, which in turn could lengthen their lifespan by an average of six months.
With many jobs now requiring employees to sit at a desk for the majority of the working day, many people aren’t as active as they should be. This can greatly increase the risk of heart diseases, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. Devices such as smartwatches tackled this issue initially through the use of a built-in pedometer, which enabled the user to track their daily step-count.
However, thanks to developments in modern technologies, this basic feature has been enhanced to assist users with their overall health to better prevent the development of life-changing and life-threatening illnesses. Devices can now track heart rate and breathing patterns throughout the day and alert users when they’ve been inactive for too long. Alternatively, it can also alert users if they’re doing too much exercise to prevent the risk of injury and negative effects on cardiovascular health.
Wearable medical devices have also been found to effectively track sleep patterns through the use of sensors, particularly for people with sleep apnoea. This potentially life-threatening sleep disorder sees individuals stop breathing multiple times during the night and has been linked to the development of heart conditions. Smartwatches that monitor sleep and SP02 are now able to detect sleep apnoea through the collection of data and can alert users to undergo sleep studies before their condition worsens.
Wearable medical devices more often than not can sync data straight to your smartphone, generally through the use of apps. When used overtime, the app can provide real-time results and create reports on the user’s overall health that highlight areas for improvement and pinpoint changes that might need to be checked out by a healthcare professional. In some cases, the data collected by smart devices have alerted users to health conditions they didn’t know they had or picked up on symptoms before they develop into serious illnesses.
While they might not be quite as mainstream as smart watches, biosensors the next big thing to take the wearable technology industry by storm. These small patches can not only monitor vitals like heart rate, but can also monitor the body’s biochemical and electrical signals, stress levels and alcohol and sugar levels.
Understandably, this will enable users to make more informed choices that can improve their overall health long-term and prevent the onset of illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. Research from Augusta University Medical Centre found that bio-sensor patches caused an 89% reduction in patient deterioration into preventable cardiac or respiratory arrest.
With new and emerging devices claiming to predict Alzheimer’s Disease, detect cancer and heart disease and provide dialysis treatments, it seems the wearable medical technology industry is only set to change and save even more lives moving forward. The sky’s the limit and we can’t wait to see what they come up with next.