By Gregory Suematsu, MEng ’20 (BIOE)The watch — an accessory we traditionally used to track time — is transforming into a device that tracks our health. The wearable health technologies field is flourishing due to the emergence of MEMS technology, enabling these devices to shrink to the size of your standard wristwatch. They allow for continuous tracking and immediate feedback of the customer’s health. The current trajectory of the industry will result in wearable health technologies able to track more physiological signals, thus improving the health of consumers through patient awareness. Is this the true future of the wearable health technologies industry? As possible risks are rising from these new technologies, the benefits will outweigh these risks. Wearable health devices are already capable of measuring multiple vitals through various methods. One health related measurement is motion; the measurement is generated using an accelerometer based on capacitive measurements (Liu, 2018). Motion is a metric for tracking fitness activity along with fall detection during a sudden health episode. The pedometer (Figure 1) was one of the earliest wearable devices that evaluated a patient’s fitness activity through motion. As MEMS technology advanced, health technologies, such as the pulse oximeter, were able to be miniaturized and compacted into a device that could be worn by a patient. Companies, such as Apple and Fitbit, introduced pulse oximeters into their products that were able to continuously monitor the heart rate of a patient — a critical body vital (Dias, 2018). A more recent advancement of wearable health technologies is the incorporation of an electrocardiogram (ECG), a previously bulky device, into watches along with the ability to give warnings of possible diagnoses. Users of these technologies are now able to access a continuous flow of their personal health data on their wrist.
What are customers going to do with all this information?Many users of these technologies use them to track their progress of a specific fitness goal; users of the Apple Watch strive to “close the rings” each day based on motion and heart rate measurements as fitness milestones. Many health watch users are persuaded to be more active in the day if they have not met their fitness milestone, and 75% of users of wearable technologies claim they help to track their own health (Phaneuf, 2019). Having these wearable health devices so readily accessible with data encourages people to stay more active and as a result improve their health. Additional ways these devices raise patient awareness is through possible diagnoses; the Apple Watch will notify the user if there is a possibility they have atrial fibrillation (AFib). AFib is a condition that requires the patient to receive an ECG and a cardiologist to analyze the measurements. Because the Apple Watch has an ECG readily accessible and built-in data analysis, the user does not need to go through the hassle of scheduling a doctor’s appointment and going to the doctor’s office. This reduction in doctor visits contributes to the predicted 16% drop in hospital costs in 5 years (Pando, 2019). With this ease of access, patients are more aware of their health risks.
Having these wearable health devices so readily accessible with data encourages people to stay more active and as a result improve their health.
The risks of wearablesThe benefits of easily tracking a user’s health data are evident, but skeptics might argue that having easy access to this sensitive data is actually harmful. Most of the diagnoses given by the devices suggest confirming the diagnosis with a medical professional, but with a person’s natural desire to save money and avoid an inconvenient doctor appointment, the individual may attempt to self-medicate. With more complicated health data, it is more likely an incorrect diagnosis occurs and the patient’s health is put at risk. These concerns should not be dismissed as self-medicating is very common throughout the world (Bennadi, 2014). However, because these health devices have developed so rapidly, the FDA has not been able to keep up with regulating healthcare surrounding these devices (Junata, 2018). The FDA will catch up to the development of these devices and place regulations on medications or possible diagnoses to mitigate the risks of self-medicating. Another fear these devices bring is that cyber criminals may be able to access the sensitive health information of patients and use it unethically. This is a valid concern as personal devices are often hacked and sensitive information is leaked; therefore, companies in the industry should keep this in mind when developing their software. Wearable health technologies is a promising field and will attract more companies to the field. As more companies enter, more devices will be developed, resulting in more possible diagnoses. The field will become more competitive and prices on these devices may drop. These events will result in an increase in health measurements and diagnoses at a cheaper price, and with a larger benefit at a lower price, more customers will buy these devices and become more aware of their health, improving their health.
Applying wearable tech to detect strokesLooking forward, I am currently working on a project involving these wearable health technologies to detect strokes by monitoring certain body vitals. If too much time elapses between onset and treatment, the patient can be ineligible for the most effective stroke therapies, and the longer a stroke goes untreated, the more irreversible damage inflicted on the patient. Thus, detecting strokes early is critical, and with the use of wearable devices constant monitoring of these body vitals, it is possible to continuously monitor a person at risk for a stroke. This project, along with many others, demonstrate that wearable health technologies do have a promising future in improving users’ health.
About the Author:Gregory Suematsu’s fields of interest are medical imaging and wearable devices because these industries can improve patients’ lives dramatically by either detecting tumors more effectively or monitoring a patients’ vitals while they are living their daily lives. As a way to formalize his interest in these fields, he is pursuing a Master of Engineering degree in Bioengineering, with a focus on medical devices and imaging, at UC Berkeley. Prior to attending Berkeley, he received his bachelor’s degree in Bioengineering at UCLA. He is seeking any opportunities to contribute to the fields of medical imaging and wearable devices. Connect with Gregory.
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