Wearable Technology Finds Its Place in Patient Care

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Wearable health devices, such as fitness-tracking wristbands, have been making waves from industry tradeshows to consumer news, with Google Glass due to hit shelves this year and the Internet-connected smartwatch seemingly fast on its heels. Predictions run the gamut on just how sizable this new tech wave will be—but most signs point to big.

Healthcare IT News reports that wearable tech sales, including fitness and healthcare devices, could reach 70 million units by 2017, compared with 15 million in 2013. In a BBC story, Credit Suisse predicts that the wearable tech market will grow from $1.4 billion in annual sales to as much as $50 billion by 2018.

Consumers have already begun to embrace Bluetooth-connected fitness wristbands like Nike+, Fuelband, Jawbone, and Fitbit. These devices empower users to achieve greater physical fitness by tracking data such as steps taken per day, activity levels, circulation, metabolism, and glucose levels, which consumers can analyze with an app on their smartphone or computer.

Innovators are also coming up with interesting ways to deploy wearable tech in healthcare. Whether they're attached with adhesive, worn as an arm- or wristband, embedded in smart textiles or even ingested, these new devices collect data and wirelessly transmit it for analysis by healthcare practitioners.

Home base: Wearable technology for preventive health monitoring

One of the fastest-growing areas of development is health monitoring, enabling patients to better manage their own health and improve outcomes. Using advances in patient-worn wireless sensors, healthcare providers can potentially monitor—in real time—basic vital signs and more like chronic disease management.

Existing and coming-soon products in this category range from pulse-measuring earphones and glucose-monitoring patches to sensor-equipped bracelets that alert wearers to dangerous levels of UV exposure. The devices enable healthcare providers to “push” alerts to patients with chronic illnesses, advising them to take medication, refill a prescription or take other steps to boost compliance with treatment plans.

When clinicians can collect information on patients anywhere and anytime, the increased knowledge can help prevent readmissions and improve clinical outcomes. And, when a patient is admitted for in-patient treatment, some organizations are experimenting with the wearable, Web-connected Google Glass eyewear for hands-free visualization of medical procedures and to connect patients with specialists.

Balancing potential risks with benefits

Achieving ever more convenient access to health data is not without some risk. As wearable health monitoring technologies emerge on the market, healthcare and tech providers will need to manage a growing volume of Big Data flowing from these new devices. Data privacy and security is a critical concern, as wearable tech-generated patient data must be privacy-protected during transmission, as required by HIPAA, and stored in a hacker-proof data repository.  

Healthcare organizations that seek to adopt wearable health monitoring technologies for patients may encounter some resistance from individual caregivers, as these devices will likely drive changes in clinical workflows to accommodate external data sources. The key, as with any technology change, is thoughtful change management communication that includes stakeholders.

Widespread use of wearable health-monitoring devices won’t happen quickly. Some of these devices must undergo the same rigorous testing and regulatory approval process as traditional medical devices that are governed by the FDA. But, in the long run, wearable devices could become a competitive advantage for some organizations, according to Theo Ahadome, a senior analyst at IMS Research, who predicts that patients ultimately will seek out providers that use wearable technologies to improve patient health.


 

April 4, 2014