When most of us consider wearables, we include devices such as Bluetooth headsets. However, in the medical industry, we expect more from our wearables and only include devices that not only provide a specific function but will also store sensor data for later retrieval by healthcare professionals. This data is then analysed to aid medical diagnosis.
In a growing telehealth market, it is these sensor-based devices that will improve healthcare services for millions of patients worldwide. Existing forecasts indicate that the global telehealth spend will increase tenfold within five years, rising to $4.5 billion by 2018.
Like any new technology, early adoption figures are quite weak but luckily, in Australia, we are always eager to experiment with new innovations. In fact, a 2014 Kronos survey demonstrates that no less than 30 per cent of Australians already use wearable technology, twice that of our U.S. counterparts. In addition, more than 40 per cent use them for work-related tasks. This high adoption rate is encouraging for future increased use of wearables in the health and fitness areas.
For this adoption rate to continue, I believe we need our healthcare providers to embrace the use of wearables, as they are best positioned to encourage their patients of wearable benefits, with the most important being improved care monitoring and increased efficiency for early diagnosis of common ailments. When a medical professional recommends a product, people listen. There are several reasons for this but primarily these include:
- A company with a commercial interest in the product is unlikely to achieve the same positive response level.
- Patients trust their doctors to act in their best interest.
- By using these technologies themselves, patients are encouraged to take a more proactive approach to their personal health.
Fitness plans were perhaps the first wearable that provided useful data for medical professionals and were primarily used by those in cardiovascular activities such as running and cycling. Like any product type, the features available vary by model and manufacturer but most are capable of acting as a pedometer and can also record pulse and heart rates. The data gathered by the device sensors is then transmitted to your smartphone using Bluetooth or possibly ANT+ for cycling enthusiasts with bicycle computers. This data is often useful to doctors as it can aid diagnostics, surpassing the original plans for the device as a general fitness monitor.
Wearables that are specifically designed for the healthcare industry work in an identical manner. Senses are used to gather data, which is then transferred to another device for later analysis. Smartphones are most commonly used, with apps available for several platforms including Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, but residential users can also use Wi-Fi to transfer data to the cloud or to another monitoring device.
In my opinion, as this technology grows, I believe real-time reporting will be possible, where data is displayed on the health professional’s monitor as soon as new data is uploaded. The exact direction this technology will take requires valuable input from knowledgeable medical professionals. That is not to say that the existing range of devices for the medical industry is limited as this is far from the situation. There are several preventative care devices already on the market and these include:
- Glucose meters that notify clinics of an emergency situation, ideal for remote monitoring of elderly diabetics
- Remote monitoring devices that store information such as blood pressure, temperature, ECG data and more. These can save a vast amount of clinic time, allowing healthcare professionals to prioritize according to patient ailment and creating an environment where early diagnosis is certain for many common ailments.
- There are several dedicated devices and applications for monitoring diets, all of which act as a virtual personal trainer who recommends a specific diet according to age and cardiovascular status.
The examples listed above are probably the most common but there are many other devices available that monitor specific conditions. All share the same properties, to gather information and to monitor patients in real-time, thereby improving doctor-patient interaction and the healthcare service provided.
The use of wearable technology is a win-win for both healthcare professionals and patients and can reduce individual patient costs while also eliminating unnecessary clinic visits for the patient. For example, if you have high blood pressure and are prescribed specific medication to alleviate the condition, you will no doubt have to make several trips to the clinic to verify that the prescribed treatment is actually working. However, with the use of wearable technology, this is no longer necessary, as the data gathered from the device is simply analysed without travelling to the clinic.
Australian healthcare professionals need to adopt wearable technology as soon as possible, given that the benefits surpass any possible costs or training headaches. It is a fact but careful selection of wearable devices and software apps can increase the efficiency of any medical practice, whether it is immediate access to patient data from anywhere, guided surgery, health monitoring tasks and more. Early adopters have already discovered that these solutions can reduce the frequency of clinic visits and related clinic hours per patients.
Individual patient costs are reduced substantially but this does not mean that clinics will lose revenue, it merely means that available clinic time is spent treating the seriously ill or patients that require emergency care.
Mobile devices, remote data access and analysis with the resulting ability to increase early patient diagnosis are the way of the future. It may take some effort to define the correct processes, workflows and procedures but it is clearly worth it. Can you really afford to ignore the benefits of wearable technology?