Wearable tech is revolutionizing healthcare delivery – at least that’s what the pundits have been predicting for a number of years. The array of devices that are under development or already commercially available is stunning.
Looking only at devices that are used by patients on a day-to-day basis, there are three different areas of usage for wearable tech:
- Continuous monitoring of chronic illnesses
Many patients with chronic illnesses need to monitor certain biophysical parameters that indicate how well they are doing, if their medications are working and when an exacerbation of their condition would warrant visiting a healthcare professional.
Wearable devices that can sense and accurately measure heart rhythm, breathing rate, or blood glucose levels enable continuous tracking of critical markers and can help alert patients and their healthcare providers early to any arising problems.
- Improving the lives of people with disabilities
This is an area in which assistive devices have had a long history (think: hearing aids, wheel chairs, etc.). Digital sensor technology is now making devices more accurate, more personalized and more helpful.
Some examples of new technology that improves daily living include:
- eSight Eyewear: A device consisting of a high-end camera, video processing software and processing unit and highest quality video OLED screens which project a real-time image that allow legally blind people to see.
- Sensimat Systems: A series of pressure sensors that are placed under a wheel chair cushion. The sensors use a proprietary algorithm to monitor the seating pattern of the wheel chair user, and send a notification via smart phone when it is time to change position to minimize the risk of pressure sores.
- TAPS Wearable: Velcro touch pads that can be worn on top of clothing or on the wheel chair. Each pad is a trigger for a smart phone app to play a pre-programmed phrase. This helps people who have difficult speaking (for example due to ALS or cerebral palsy) to communicate more easily.
- Recovery and rehabilitation devices
Also an area in which assistive devices have had their place for a long time, digital enhancements now tailor these types of wearables more to the patient’s needs. A number of companies are working on solutions to increase patients’ mobility – typically using some form of exoskeleton, together with sensors and algorithms to help with movement and recovery.
How do these new technologies fit into our healthcare system and how accessible will they be to patients who can benefit from their use?
Our healthcare system is already set up to evaluate new assistive devices, and potentially pay for them. Device makers would have to prove that their inventions are useful and enable patients to live more independently and / or return to work earlier and save or reduce disability payments or insurance costs.
Those who develop the wearables have to figure out which ones of the many institutions that share healthcare costs in our country they should approach to be considered for funding.
Funding is more difficult for wearable devices used in monitoring chronic illness. In most cases, there is no precedent for continuous patient monitoring. Not only the patient’s engagement in the process is required, but a whole new infrastructure approach to healthcare is needed on the provider side. Currently, neither private practices nor hospitals are set up to receive, monitor and act upon myriad patient data coming in through wearable devices.
Many barriers impede adoption of new technologies for patient monitoring:
- Concern about the reliability of incoming data – how accurate is the wrist-mounted heart monitor, are there differences between different devices and who is at fault if the device either gives a false positive and triggers an unnecessary medical intervention, or a false negative that puts the patient’s health at risk?
- Integration with existing technology – how will data come into the clinic, will it be compatible with currently used IT solutions, how can staff easily access the data and how will confidentiality and privacy be safeguarded?
- Integration into existing work flows – who will review the data, at what intervals, and which actions should follow particular cues? Will healthcare professionals need special training on how to read the data? Is extra staff required? How can incoming data be standardized to avoid confusion?
- And last, but not least, who pays for the extra time that clinic staff spends on continuous patient monitoring?
Many of us are still in the phase of excitement over the wealth of possibilities that wearable tech affords us for delivering better healthcare. The successful players will be the ones who figure out how the possible can be turned into the doable, and profitable, within the constraints of our infrastructure and funding environment.