Opinion: Healthcare could benefit more from wearables

(Image Credit: iStockPhoto/simarik)

The recent focus around wearables at CES pricked my attention yet again. There can be no doubt that wearables are more than just a passing fad, they have engaged consumers in new ways by providing the ability to capture and track health information. But what are we doing with all the data captured by wearables, and how can this benefit the healthcare system?

More often than not, the data gathered from these devices live in personal silos. I also wonder if we are in danger of preaching wearables to the converted and miss a whole group of society who would benefit enormously from the technology – potentially even more so than those who have engaged so far.

One takeaway from the show is that there appears to be a lot of frustration with the form-factor. New devices launched at CES seem to be moving away from the ‘traditional’ watches and wristbands. The new form-factors on display at the show included necklaces, clip-ons, rings and jewellery in general. I think this is because while the fitness guys are happy with the existing styles, but the rest of us are much more inclined to want to hide the device or for it to be less of a showpiece. I wonder if there would be more general take up if there were mote low-annoyance devices, as opposed to thick bulky wrist-worn models.

Industry focus however remains largely on wearables as ‘fitness technology’ or ‘health trackers’. In my view, this is missing an important market. Right now wearables are generally targeted at people who engage in regular healthy activities and people who have healthy lifestyles, people who have bought into the desire to use the data for healthier living. As a result, this will certainly skew the data coming from them (the data that the health industry is using, or could be using). There is very little evidence of whether the people who actually might benefit most, or the ‘unhealthy’, are buying these devices. I suspect they would need to be pitched to differently as this group of people might well be put off by terms such as ‘fitness technology’ or ‘health trackers’.

Although a big challenge, I see huge potential in gathering data from what I’m going to call the unhealthy population. We need to be looking at moving the data capture from wearables away from the super-healthy and on to the majority of normal, healthy, semi-healthy (and downright unhealthy) people out there. I can see this data informing public health policy in a hugely productive way. It will be controversial of course - just look at the recent furore over the revised alcohol guidelines in the UK. So, what’s required? A cheap, easy to use, aesthetically-pleasing device that people will actually want to use. And a campaign around public health with all the safeguards we’ve come to expect around data privacy. This won’t be easy as we all know that people are wary, but it could revolutionise healthcare as we know it.

One thing is for certain, we haven’t yet seen the full potential of wearable tech. Today the devices are targeted at a small minority of (relatively fit and healthy) receptive early adopters but the devices don’t yet have form factors that are attractive to a wider population. There is vast potential to be had from persuading the general population to use such devices and to share their heath data, as well as to use this data as a way to help manage their health.

I leave you with one final thought. High tech wearable tattoos made their debut at CES 2016 and, whilst this might have been seen as a bit gimmicky, in my opinion the injectable, sub-cutaneous version may have widespread appeal. It’s the ultimate in convenience, ‘fit and forget’ and it is certainly an easier way to monitor your healthcare rather than having a bulky and pricy watch on your wrist.

Do you think wearables can offer a lot more to healthcare? Share your thoughts in the comments.



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