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December 15, 2016

Wearables have great potential – but not right now

Wearables have a great deal of potential when it comes to gathering actionable health and fitness date. In other words: gathering information that can help the wearables’ users, doctors, Insurance companies et cetera to gain better insights into personal health issues and possible prevention of diseases and disorders.

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However, Tom Foremski’s ZDNet writes, there is a big maybe here: there is to much data going around. Foremski recently spoke with  two doctors who have been working in this field as advisers. These doctors said they  don’t know what to do with all the data that patients keep sending them from their wearables, heart rate, steps taken, etc. And some wearables collect data on biometric data that’s unknown to medical science. So much for big data.

"We know how to interpret EKG data but we don’t know what to to do with all the different types of data that are being collected. We can’t make medical recommendations," Forenski quotes  Dr. Jeffrey Olgin, Chief of Cardiology at UCSF. All this data requires extensive analysis. The data also requires context for it to become useful in improving medical outcomes.

Not medical grade

So two problems right here: too much data and a growing need for contextualising this data. A third problem that has to be solved before any Big Data analysis can be done: consumer wearables are not medical grade devices and so the specialists can’t tell if they measure data the same way as medical grade devices do. This is a statement from Dr. Vernon Smith at Avera Medical Group.

Medical grade devices have been calibrated and tested for accuracy and consistency. This is not the case for consumer wearables like Fitbit or Apple Watch. Many users have noticed inconsistent data between wearables.

"What does a thirty minute spike in your heart rate mean? Is your ten thousand steps enough exercise? What does your temperature fluctuation mean? We don’t know yet," said Smith. "And this will also have to be taught in the medical schools so doctors know how to respond to their patients data."

No medical value

Both doctors say they they loved wearables and the massive amounts of data that are being generated. But it could take several years before medical insights are discovered. The big question is: will people continue to buy wearables for health and fitness purposes if their medical value won’t be realized for several years?

Jiang Li, VivaLnk CEO, states that the lack of medical grade wearables will change over time. His company is focused on working with experts in the medical community to produce new wearables that can provide medical grade data that is accurate and usable.

VivaLnk, focused on developing comfortable wearables that can provide continuous and wireless monitoring, has developed a flexible and very thin electronic circuit board called eSkin, that is designed to sit comfortably on a person’s skin and monitor a range of biometric signals.

Conclusion

Foremski concludes that for the next few years there won’t be much medical benefit to wearables until we get those big data studies done. And that means there is a danger that all that data collection could be derailed if wearables are seen as a fashionable fad with no medical value and consumers stop wearing them.

However, wearables won’t go away although they will certainly change their look as in the fashion industry. And a technology like eSkin is flexible and thin enough to slip behind whatever is hot that season. All the wearables will be become cheaper and will soon melt into the framework of our daily lives.

The potential impact of wearables on healthcare remains extraordinarily powerful, but there’s a lot of work still to be done. And this doesn’t even include the hard part: behavior modification which is the ultimate goal of all of this.

Demand wearables growing

So let’s take a look at some wearable trends ICT&health recently covered. The demand for wearables is showing extremely positive growth, most market research firms believe. GFK predicts global sales of 122 million units for 2016 and expects to see a global market volume in this sector of US$ 13.3 billion.

Health & fitness trackers are still the biggest wearable-category in volume, though the growth is slowing down as multifunctional smartwatches offer more health & fitness functions. GfK trade panel figures for the first half year show that wrist-mounted technology is becoming increasingly well established in Western Europe: Currently, one in ten consumers who buy a smartphone also purchase a wearable. 5.5 million devices were sold in total.

One in three people monitor health

One in three people (33 percent) currently monitor or track their health or fitness via an online or mobile application, or via a fitness band, clip, or smartwatch. This concludes a recent, international GfK survey, conducted online in 16 countries.

Chinese consumers are especially very active: 45 percent of the respondents said they currently use such devices. Germany ranks fourth at 28 percent behind Brazil and the US (both 29%) and ahead of France at 26 percent. The Netherlands are at the bottom of the list, with only 13 percent of respondents saying they digitally monitor or track physical functions for health or fitness purposes.

55 percent of those who are currently tracking their health and fitness said one of the reasons they do it is “to maintain or improve my physical condition or fitness” – making this the most popular reason internationally. The next most widespread reason is motivating themselves to exercise, selected by half (50 percent) of those currently tracking.

Wearables in corporate wellness programs

Wearable wireless devices continue to push in to corporate wellness programs as a range of previously disparate players, from wearable device manufacturers to health insurance providers, partner, and collaborate, ABI states in its report The Role of Wearable Wireless Devices in Corporate Wellness Programs.

Their combined efforts will help push more than 44 million wearable devices into wellness plans over the next five year. Early data suggests that corporate wellness programs with wearable devices increase average employee participation from 20 percent to between 60 and 70 percent, with some employers reporting participation rates above 90 percent.

New growth opportunities

A broader and more competitive ecosystem for wearables and sensors spurred by smartphone and tablet sensor integration —forecast to hit close to $5 billion in 2016— will also create massive opportunities in automotive, consumer electronics, and healthcare. Healthcare, in particular, shows the largest, untapped opportunity for eye tracking and gesture applications in patient care.

ABI believes eye tracking sensors (in for example glass wearables) can help detect concussions and head trauma, identify autism in children before they are speaking e.g. the Autism Glass experiment, and enable vision therapy programs for early childhood learning challenges to retrain the learned aspects of vision.

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