Wearable Devices Offer Great Possibilities for Health Care

Wearable Devices Offer Great Possibilities for Health Care

Bhawna Jha, M.D., is an assistant professor of Neurology/Pain Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. 

Human beings have a way of ignoring or denying medical issues. It’s easy to downplay a momentary misstep or ignore a strange but fleeting sensation we feel in our own bodies or think we perceive in a family member or friend, until it becomes painfully clear that an emergency is upon us.

But through the use of increasing technological innovations in health care, such as sophisticated wearable devices, it’s almost like we have a doctor with us who can instantly recognize a problem and let us, or our caretakers, know objectively and precisely what is going on, or at least that we need to have a professional take a look.

This is why interest in healthcare-related wearable devices, commonly referred to as “wearables,” has increasingly intensified.

Wearables have recently been recognized for their ability to extend the expertise of healthcare professionals into areas outside the hospital and clinic.Companies including FitBit and Sesnionic have rapidly expanded the creation of these devices with the sole intention of increasing the portability and accessibility of health information through small, wearable devices.

And to make this situation even more compelling, the individual components of wearable devices have continuously become smaller and less expensive.

Based on the abundant utility of these devices, many have predicted the advancements in wearable technologies would inevitably benefit individuals by giving them the ability to obtain instant medical feedback. Ultimately, the remote monitoring of wearable technologies by family members or healthcare providers is expected to become common practice.

Imagine the possibilities:

● The activity of a vulnerable family member who has autism, depression, diabetes, a blood disorder or other illnesses can be closely monitored, ensuring a lower risk of possible harm.

● A caregiver is alerted to the fact a child is drowning or in some other state of distress thanks to wearable technology.

● Extreme fluctuations in blood pressure or blood glucose (specifically in patients with a history of such diseases), which can be indicators of a medical emergency, can be intercepted and acted upon by an artificial intelligence-driven model or can promptly alert the covering physician.

Benefits to the Tech

Although wearables are best known for helping wearers track their steps or other athletic activity, these convenient, portable devices are now able to detect various conditions. These include pulse rate, blood pressure, blood oxygenation level, walking patterns and weight gain, using an electrocardiogram, ballistocardiogram or alternate sensors.

They can also be connected via Bluetooth to the individual’s smartphone and be transferred via the cloud to any professional. The doctor or other professional can then analyze that data to advise the patient what to do next, such as re-starting a discontinued medication, visiting the emergency room or moving up an appointment. In the future, the doctor or other professional may also be able to analyze data from equipment, such as scales or step-counting machines, if legally permissible, to obtain additional information about the patient. Currently, there are numerous apps available which, when combined with the newly collected data and patients' previous healthcare records, can give an adequate picture of an individual's health.

Mobile devices are ubiquitous and may serve as an equalizing force in medically underserved areas by reducing the overall cost of healthcare and increasing patients’ access to treatment, thus universally improving the overall health and welfare of patients. The wearables themselves are relatively cheap to construct. However, if prior FDA approval is required, then it can become a long and expensive process. Some product-makers have taken the alternate route to market these products as consumer electronic goods, thereby bypassing the FDA approval process. Ultimately, due to its relatively cheap production cost and its convenience, wearable devices are considered extremely efficient.

Security and Privacy Concerns

The discussion on wearables is not complete without acknowledging their challenges or risks. Most of these wearable technologies are still not as ‘hack-proof’ as desired and will vary by an individual’s environment and technological expertise. Can a wearable technology such as an insulin pump be ‘hacked into’ (or simply malfunction) and inject a larger, possibly threatening dose? It is certainly in the realm of possibility.

Additionally, the data acquired by multiple personal monitoring devices can be largely dependent on the input of healthcare professionals, who are already busy and rarely have the capacity to review all the data needed to make any meaningful impact. Data privacy also remains a concern with multiple loosely affiliated apps, programs and so on.

Hopefully, rapid development of artificial intelligence will further accelerate the development of these wearable technologies’ data privacy, as well as their efficiency and portability, to improve healthcare outcomes and decision making. This will also help healthcare professionals reach out to individuals and educate them to make them an important stakeholder in decisions regarding their personal health. It may end up improving the patients and their family members or caregivers’ trust in healthcare institutions. Ultimately, if these devices are further developed, they could be transformed into an extremely beneficial tool for increasing universal access to healthcare.

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