Wearable sensors are ubiquitous these days. From step trackers to smart watches, these handy devices have gained wide-spread attention over the past several years. It is probably safe to assume that many of the people reading this article are a part of the one in five American’s who wears a fitness tracker, like the FitBit, to calculate distance walked, calories burned, floors climbed and activity duration and intensity.
While fitness trackers are well-known and continue to grow in the mobile industry, wearable sensors have quickly infiltrated the world of healthcare. With the help of wearables, doctors are readily connecting to patients in real-time and users are monitoring specific ailments through innovative technological development.
Want to learn more about how these wearables work? Join PharPoint as we explore the history behind wearable sensors, how the healthcare industry has adapted to this trend, and what the future of the technology may hold.
What are Wearable Sensors?
First, let’s get down to the basics of these tiny computers. Wearable sensors are made using micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS), or miniature devices made of mechanical and electrical components designed to work together to sense and report the physical properties of their local environment. MEMS were first developed in the 1970s and gained popularity in the automotive (airbag deployment) and medical (blood pressure measurement in IV lines) fields throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Today, wearables are a new domain for MEMS sensors, especially in activity monitors. These devices collect data about the physical and chemical properties of a user’s body to feed algorithms and create insightful information for the user. Take the Apple Watch for instance, where downloads can help users:
- Remember to stay hydrated
- Engage in short meditation sessions
- Count calories
- Navigate sleep patterns
The examples below outline a variety of the tracking capabilities captured by the Apple Watch.
These charts are interactive and better inform the user about their lifestyle, but let’s go a step further to see how these metrics are also beneficial to the healthcare industry.
How Healthcare is Getting Involved
As of early 2016, healthcare is amongst the top three global industries for wearable sensors. There is a rising demand from physicians to incorporate wearable health tracking technology for monitoring a patient’s health. Why this increased demand? Let’s explore some of the reasons:
Rising Healthcare Costs
Patients who use wearables and are connected to the cloud could provide doctors with greater information at the beginning of a visit. This shift in patient involvement can offset healthcare costs by leading to fewer and shorter doctor visits, fewer unnecessary medical tests and higher rates of treatment success.
Simplicity and Ease of Use
Wearable sensors are designed with clear, user-friendly interfaces to increase interaction for the wearer and device. Information about the user’s activity is clearly generated to provide general feedback about performance. This is useful for both patients and physicians to better understand a patient’s condition over time. Doctors can use this information to monitor a patient’s vital signs as a baseline to interpret progress and relapse after surgery. Doctors can also use these devices to monitor patient conditions in between appointments to make more accurate health recommendations based on the long-term data provided by the wearable.
Alternative to Implantable Sensors
Another technology that has been used to monitor medical conditions is sensors inserted into the body, known as implantable sensors. Implantable sensors require invasive procedures and must meet stringent size, safety and performance requirements. Wearables have become a viable alternative to implantable sensors since they’re non-intrusive, inconspicuous and available at lower costs. In addition, regulatory processes for wearables are more time efficient and less costly than for implantables.
Let’s go over some examples of wearable sensors that are currently used in the healthcare sector:
Asthma StickersThese thin adhesives send alerts when a user experiences an asthma situation. The stickers also provide journaling options, treatment plans, displays and the tracking and information on symptoms.
Back BracesMuch like their predecessors, new sensored back braces monitor lower back pain, provide users with stability and suggest helpful exercises to increase strength and decrease pain.
Knee BracesSome slip-on knee braces are now embedded with sensors to store movement information while the brace itself provides stability to the joint and leg.
PatchesThese thick adhesives are padded with electrodes to keep track of heart rate, breathing, temperature, steps and body position (in case of a fall) to send information to healthcare providers.
Contact LensesGoogle has patented sensing contact lenses which measure glucose levels in the user’s tears and sends the readings through a user display on a mobile device.
The Future of Wearable Technology
It’s estimated that there will be 3 billion wearable sensors by 2025 but even so, the staying power of the technology is debatable, as many reason researchers question the long-term impact of these devices due to the high rate of abandonment. It’s estimated that about half of those who buy fitness trackers stop using them after six months.
Why the high rate of abandonment? One theory suggests that while wearables are good at telling us what we’re doing wrong (not enough steps, not enough restful sleep, too much sugar), they don’t provide enough positive feedback for users or give incentives to increase healthy behavior. Another issue is the data overload that can plague physicians. A constant stream of information about patients can be difficult for doctors to decipher and find time to analyze, therefore making the data provided by patients obsolete.
So, how do we overcome these barriers? One solution is to combine wearable devices with biometrics to provide actionable insights (like suggestions for how to lower blood pressure or easy exercises to incorporate into daily routines). This makes wearable devices less boring and users are incentivized to keep using them. Another way to increase usability is to ensure physicians are confident in the technology, how to read it, and the assurance the data they are receiving is reliable and accurate.
As these technologies progress, more and more wearable sensors are gaining FDA approval and other medical clearances from all over the world. With the consistent development of wearable sensors and their integration into the healthcare system we are sure to see more advancements in the patient-doctor interaction in the future.
Do you have experience using wearable sensors? Share your experience in the comments below!