Wearable technology in the health sector: Challenges and predictions
Over the past 18 months we have witnessed a sharp rise in the popularity of wearable technology, particularly in fitness and activity trackers. Medical Director of the NHS, Sir Bruce Keogh, recently told The Guardian how such wearables could eventually revolutionise the healthcare industry. With the public fitness habit intensifying and the technology growing more intelligent, we are likely to see wearables playing a pivotal role in medical diagnostics, information sharing and general health in the not-too-distant future.
The growing fitness habit
The growth in our appetite for fitness tracking and overall awareness of our wellbeing can be attributed to smartphones, where GPS and accelerometer functionality now provides background activity tracking. Google introduced a monthly step-count summary card into Google Now in late 2012, while the M7 processor first seen in the iPhone 5s enables devices to track and categorise user movement. Representing a passive entry into fitness tracking, these developments show how technology can begin to support needs we didn’t realise we had, or provide information that we didn’t think we wanted. A number of third party apps have benefitted as a result, making use of the devices’ capability to help users track their runs, sleeping patterns, and even heart rate.
These developments have simultaneously sparked curiosity and highlighted the limitations of smartphone fitness tracking, in turn enabling the growth in popularity of specific tracking hardware from companies such as Fitbit and Jawbone, as well as the Nike FuelBand. These devices have supercharged the appeal of the simple pedometer, using gamification and an effective visualisation of data such as calories and water intake, to enhance the user experience and paint an overall picture of our general health. As a result, fitness monitoring has become a more exciting proposition and the presentation of such data has proven to be as important as the collation of it in the first place.
Self-treatment and early detection
Giving users a more relatable overview of their health aids their understanding of it, whilst better influencing their decisions in improving their overall wellbeing. Similarly, the wealth of data that these devices are providing is invaluable to the manufacturers of these products, as well as professionals in the health industry. When collected consistently, information on caloric intake, heart rate, weight and active steps might serve to effectively inform medical professionals in conversations with patients or in research studies. Newer personal technology is attempting to measure factors such as air quality, blood pressure, body temperature and cholesterol, and will further aid in painting a more comprehensive medical picture.
A prospect potentially even more exciting concerns what might be made possible in the areas of early detection, illness prevention and post-treatment monitoring. By providing a comprehensive, up-to-date picture of user health, wearables may aid the NHS in determining the cause or location of illness, allowing the diagnosis and treatment of problems to take place at an earlier stage and with greater accuracy. Such preventative action would clearly save the NHS serious money, time, and resources, allowing doctors and hospitals to effectively diagnose and treat patients in a smaller window of time.
Yet while these concepts might potentially be of great significance and use to the medical profession, they also raise considerations over privacy. The implications of giving up our health data are huge, and in buying fitness tracking devices we consent to sharing an enormous amount of data regarding personal health and fitness to an unquantifiable audience. While the information is a great research tool, there is not yet a clear rulebook on what these companies can do with such data, or where and to whom it can and can’t be published.
Wearable technology harnesses the ability to collect a powerful amount of data about the state of our bodies, and has the potential to be a powerful asset in the healthcare industry. Allowing us to make more informed decisions in monitoring our health, it will also aid doctors in treating patients more effectively. But amidst heightened privacy concerns and the tendency of users to share personal information without considering the ramifications, it’s crucial that effective encryption and clear permissions on data sharing are established alongside the exciting potential developments in wearable technology.
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