The Digital Health Hope: How Wearables Will Revolutionize Medicine
This is part three of RealClearHealth's five-part series: The Digital Health Hope. Each Friday, Dr. Kevin Campbell will explore the world of potential that digital health offers. Read the rest of the series here.
Wearable monitoring technology and health trackers have emerged in the last decade and are now becoming part of our daily lives. From Fitbits, to the Apple Watch, to athletic wear that has implanted sensors, we now have the opportunity to track heart rate and rhythm, blood pressure, blood sugar, respiratory rate and many other biological data points that can provide insight into the minute-to-minute performance of our bodies. The amount of data generated by these devices is staggering and allows patients to become more involved and engaged in their own care.
As a doctor, I know that when patients are engaged in their own care, outcomes improve. Much of this has occurred due to the digitization of health care and the renewed focus on big data to better treat and cure disease. According to the Pricewaterhouse Cooper (PwC) annual health report, 2017 is the year in which technologies will emerge that will forever disrupt health care. You can bet that wearables will likely be a big part of this disruptive revolution.
The Explosion of Wearable Technology
According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), the wearable market grew nearly 30 percent in 2016 and predicts that nearly 213 million wearable units will be sold by the year 2020. The global market for health care related wearable technology may reach over 200 billion dollars in the next seven years. This growth can be attributable to several factors including the expanded cellular connectivity of these devices—leaving the wearable devices un-tethered from a mobile phone and the user free to transmit data to the cloud unencumbered. In addition, the rapid development of device specific applications (apps) also increases the utility of wearable devices and has helped to expand their adoption in health care. Watches and activity bands remain the most popular but a great deal of work has been focused on clothing and eyewear, with many experts expecting these devices to gain traction as more are released into the market.
Ultimately wearable devices will monitor and track different body functions, collect a wide range of data from different body systems, analyze such data with the help of machine learning & artificial intelligence and communicate such data to health care providers. When physicians have this type of data easily accessible and readily available, they are more likely to make potentially impactful changes in therapy at a much quicker pace. While much study will be needed, this proactive approach to health care and prevention is certain to result in better outcomes for patients.
Emerging Wearable Technology
The market is bursting with new health care applications of wearable technology and many of these have been featured at events like the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Private companies have created some of these devices, while others are generated from research at academic institutions across the country. Here are some of the newest products that have been identified by multiple technology organizations (including those at the 2017 CES) as having great potential to disrupt the health care space. While this list is by no means exhaustive and does not represent personal endorsement of these products, I find each of these to be particularly illustrative of the wide range of potential applications for wearable devices in health care.
1. Alive Cor:
The Alive Cor device, developed by cardiologist Dr David Albert, uses a small electrode to monitor your electrocardiogram (ECG) on your smartphone. The device, which has been FDA cleared for several years, is quite useful in treating patients with common heart rhythm disorders such as Atrial Fibrillation (AF). The Alive Cor device utilizes a sensor placed on your smartphone to quickly and easily collect an ECG and transmit the tracing to the cloud for analysis. The ECG can assist both patient and physician in managing AF and can help avoid unnecessary and costly emergency room visits. Alive Cor has recently developed a wrist band (called Kardia) that attaches to the Apple Watch and can obtain an ECG on the wristwatch. The FDA is currently evaluating this technology.
2. K’Track Glucose Monitor and Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs):
Diabetes is all too prevalent in the U.S. today. Maintaining a stable blood sugar is critical to avoiding both acute and chronic complications of the disease. Traditionally, diabetics have had to check their blood sugars manually by pricking their finger and using a glucometer up to 10 times a day. Now, wearable technology is making continuous glucose monitoring possible. Many diabetics rely on insulin pumps for their daily insulin needs—now integrated continuous glucose monitors can provide real time blood glucose levels to both patient and device ensuring better blood sugar control. Once company, PKvitality, has created the K’track wristband to measure blood glucose and lactate levels through the skin—absorbing these chemicals via the underside of the device. The K'track inserts tiny micro-needles less than half a millimeter into the user's outer layer of skin. The device then measures the fluid that is absorbed from under that outer layer of skin to identify glucose levels. When paired with their mobile app, users will be able to track their glucose levels over time on their phone, allowing for more accurate adjustments to their insulin delivery system—not to mention the convenience of not having to do finger sticks multiple times a day.
3. Measuring Sweat
Sweat is an important source of chemical information. Through the use of chemical sensors embedded on soft, flexible silicone rubber discs, wearable “sweat sensors” can simultaneously track levels of glucose, lactate, sodium, potassium, and skin temperature. This device-collected data is then processed by microchips and transmitted wirelessly to a smartphone. Ultimately, this technology may be incorporated into a sweatband or smartwatch. For decades, physicians have relied on blood tests for information about blood chemistry—now we can get similar information from something as readily available and easy to obtain as everyday perspiration.
4. Ava bracelet monitors fertility
Reproductive health and predicting fertility is important to many women and couples around the country. Now, a new device is able to monitor 3 million data points that correlate to a woman’s menstrual cycle as well as her fertility status that correlate on hormone levels. Data points include resting pulse rate, skin temperature, sleep, perfusion, bio-impedance, breathing and sleep. According to published research, the combination of the data points can predict fertility dates within a woman’s cycle with 89 percent accuracy. The device is typically worn at night and sends information directly to a smartphone or other mobile device.
What Does All This Mean For Health Care?
The future of health care is digital. Dr. Eric Topol, cardiologist, innovator and author sums it up best in his book entitled The Creative Destruction of Medicine:
“A new model of medicine is being induced by the digital era and the altered way in which information will be flowing…The digital world has been in a separate orbit from our medical cocoon, and it's time the boundaries be taken down…”
The potential upside of the partnership between wearable technology and medicine is huge. The digital and mobile world allows real time health information to not only be collected easily but it also allows physicians to act quickly and respond to rapidly changing health indicators. I firmly believe that increasing patient and physician access to big data through wearables will play a huge role in the way medicine is practiced in the future. Care will be more accurate, more accessible and far more efficient.