Wear your health on your sleeve: The next phase of wearable technology


If you want to appreciate the promise and the challenge of applying new technology to healthcare, look no further than the UK National Health Service.

In 2013, the Secretary of State for Health Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt challenged the NHS to “go paperless by 2018." The goal of this challenge was “to save billions, improve services and help meet the challenges of an ageing population.”

A paperless healthcare facility would have many benefits. It would enable patients to access complete electronic copies of their health and care records. Doctors would be able to issue referrals through email, rather than paper. When patients moved from clinic to clinic, their electronic health and care records would move with them, quickly and securely.

Consider however what going paperless means for the IT departments of healthcare organisations. Reams of paper healthcare records must be digitised, catalogued, and stored online. Software applications must be deployed for managing these records and making them securely accessible to physicians, nurses, lab workers, administrators, and patients.

Much of that access to these digital records will involve mobile devices. Physicians are increasingly leveraging mobile devices when interacting with patients and as a result the transformation of healthcare records means the transformation of information devices: from clipboards and file folders to smartphones and tablets.

Mobile devices are also a great solution for improving the administration of healthcare, namely doctors and nurses helping patients. And it's just in the nick of time.

As Tim Kelsey, NHS England’s National Director for Patients and Information, recently noted: “The health service in the UK faces three fundamental challenges: a growing and ageing population, the rapid rise of long-term conditions and the expectation that the NHS will deliver ever more expansive and expensive treatments.”

How will the NHS monitor their health and manage their care? In part, by taking advantage of the next revolution in mobile devices: wearable technology.

As Kelsey also points out, people suffering from chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure could be constantly monitored remotely through wearable skin sensors or smartphone apps with data uploaded directly to health records so that problems can be spotted and recorded immediately.Wearable tech like Jawbone, Fitbit, and Misfit, as well as Pebble and Apple smartwatches are already able to monitor heart rate, sleeping patterns, steps taken, diet, alcohol intake and running speed.

In addition to improving care, the adoption of these wearable devices and supporting mobile apps could help save the NHS £5 billion over the next decade by freeing up resources and allowing people to monitor their own health rather than relying on professionals.

And patients will not be the only ones wearing new medical devices. Healthcare providers will be wearing them, too, as they promise to improve care, facilitate patient monitoring, and reduce costs.

Google may have pulled its Google Glass product off the consumer market, but an upgraded version is selling well to healthcare professionals and the manufacturers of healthcare devices, says Bloomberg Business. Now physicians are using Google Glass to automatically fill out medical records during interviews with patients, using software from Augmedix. Heart surgeons are wearing Google Glass when performing surgery to receive guidance and share feedback in real time from medical device maker Endologix Inc. And live-streaming surgery without requiring a hand-held camera enables surgeons to share information and receive training without having to fly to a central training facility.

Naturally, wearables introduce another set of challenges for IT departments and security officers. Wearable devices up the ante for protecting data privacy. Now it is not just healthcare records that could be exposed, but also personal information such as location, activity, and diet. Unfortunately, many of the new wearable devices have been designed for functionality and convenience rather than security.

When we are all ‘wearing our health on our sleeve’ and being monitored by healthcare applications and our remote healthcare providers, we should hope that our healthcare data is secure from end-to-end: from our wrists through Wi-Fi airwaves to Web services, databases, and software applications. To realise the promise of this next phase of healthcare, the NHS, medical device vendors, and others will need to ensure that paperless, wearable healthcare includes a healthy dose of data security.


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