Next Generation Wearable Device Growth Creates New Opportunities for Real-Time Monitoring of Health Conditions

“Technology is now not only giving people incentive to become more deeply involved and interested in their own health, but they can easily share these data sets with their health practitioners in a far more accurate and structured way.”

Matthew Bardsley, CEO, Medical
Image Credit:

Advances in sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) are helping millions detect and manage chronic health conditions and avoid serious illness on devices small enough to be worn on a wrist or penny-sized patch. We are seeing incredible growth in wearables, with more than 1,000 wearable sensors on the market—from smartwatches to advanced fabrics and materials. Growing demand for wearables has generated a booming market, and now insurers and companies see how supplying wearable health technology to their consumers and employees is beneficial.

Fueled by the increasing demand of consumers to monitor their health and keep track of their vital signs, the use of wearable technology has more than tripled in the last four years. According to research from Insider Intelligence, more than 80% of consumers are willing to wear fitness technology.

Image Credit: Insider, Accessed March 27, 2022

But, we’ve only seen the beginnings of the uses of wearables in health care. The wearable healthcare technology market is surging, and its maturation will put more wearable technology in the hands of consumers and US businesses. Next-generation wearables and implantable technologies are beginning to emerge, and new advances may help detect and track biomarkers, improve our health, and enhance healing. They’ll also report data and adjust settings—independently of a smartphone or computer. And as wearables transition to implantables, we will gain greater visibility into real-time biological health.

“The digitally enabled practitioner will be able to see their next patient, well-equipped with the same wealth of data that the patient has on their own wellness apps and devices – and more. The clinical visit will be more open, accurate and efficient, while the patient and practitioner relationship will become more trusting, personalised and transparent.”

Matthew Bardsley, CEO, Medical

As reported by The Future Today Institute, (IMHO one of the best resources out there for information on future growth of technologies – their complete report for 2022 is 658 pages long, but is a treasure trove of valuable information), the explosive growth in wearable development will usher in a new era of diagnostics and treatments. Given the rapid pace of change in this area, here are some of the most exciting innovations being developed today.

Illness-detecting sensors – Several 2020 studies found that wearables, such as the Oura Ring (fyi, just last week the company announced it had sold its one millionth smart ring. And, I’ll resist the urge to add a Tolkien quote here. 🧙‍♂️), Fitbit, and Apple Watch, can detect early signs of infections. Apple and the University of Washington used the Apple Watch to monitor changes in participants’ heart rate and blood oxygenation as a potential predictor of infection. In a separate Warrior Watch Study, researchers found heart rate variability detected on Apple Watches pinpointed early signs of COVID-19. A study led by Duke University found that a wristband that monitors heart rate, skin temperature, activity, and electrodermal activity could predict viral infection and the severity of illness.

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a robotic nose that uses biological smell receptors to detect disease by interpreting patterns of molecules, much like a dog does. Nano-Nose identifies patterns in receptor electrical activity and uses machine learning to link these patterns to disease predictions. The bot has identified prostate cancer via smell with 70% accuracy.

Touch-sensitive materialsChina’s Southeast University developed a material that can respond to pressure or stretching through liquid metal circuits and liquid crystal elastomers. The team demonstrated how the same material could change shape with temperature. The material could be used in soft robotics that sense and respond to their surroundings.

Tattoos and Electronic Skins – The University of Texas at Austin explores how graphene electronic tattoos can measure brain waves, heart activity, and muscle activity through biopotentials. Researchers received a National Science Foundation grant for work with the Georgia Institute of Technology to develop an e-tattoo that remotely monitors pneumonia patients and predicts changes in their condition. At Northwestern University, researchers are investigating soft, flexible skin-inspired electronics called electronic skins or e-skins. They created a device for the throat that monitors speech, respiration, heart rate, and other biometrics for stroke patients, speech and physical therapy, residents of assisted living homes, and sleep monitoring.

Dissolving bioelectronics – Researchers at Northwestern and George Washington universities developed a cardiac pacing device absorbed by the body over five to seven weeks—ideal for post-surgical patients who may need temporary pacing. During surgery, doctors adhere the flexible device to the surface of the patient’s heart. The device then harvests power from an external source using near-field communication (NFC), eliminating the need for batteries or external leads.

Smart threadsMIT researchers created a washable fiber that senses, stores, and processes data. Using AI, the fiber could provide real-time alerts about potential respiratory problems or arrhythmias. And researchers at the Missouri University of Science and Technology are using smart fibers to develop a helmet that can detect real-time concussions among athletes.

Connected fabrics and apparel – There’s been a lot of innovation in this area since Google announced their Project Jacquard and their partnership with Levi’s back in 2015. Nextiles makes athletic apparel that monitors motion, pressure, bending, torque, and twisting for detailed feedback to athletes—including warning signs of fatigue. Rice University’s George R. Brown School of Engineering is using soft, flexible nanotube fibers sewn into athletic shirts to provide continuous electrocardiographic monitoring. Notably, the shirt remains washable and stretchable. Nanowear devel- oped SimpleSense, a sash worn over the chest lined with billions of nano-sensors. It can capture 85 patient vitals, including blood pressure and heart rate, respiration, lung volume and fluid, and temperature. Nanowear has partnered with health systems in New York City to conduct a clinical trial in COVID-19 patients of its SimpleSense remote diagnostic monitoring platform.

Wearable devices are moving from the fringe to the mainstream, as health-conscious consumers look for more actionable insights from their collected data. As emerging technologies and medical-grade sensors bring the power of the laboratory and diagnostics into our homes and AI expands the possibilities for remote diagnosis, executive teams should ask themselves: “How might these consumer health products unlock new growth opportunities for our business?” Consider the benefits to your organization of creating a “digital health formulary” to identify, curate, and distribute these devices to patients and their families.

Some Straight Talk on Digital Health Sensors in Health Care

“We’ve come to a point in time where you can take the rich functionality of microelectronics and put it in new forms, fits and functions.”

Gregory Raupp, Professor of chemical engineering and research director of the WearTech Applied Research Center
Image credit: The Medical Futurist Institute

Health monitoring devices are taking center stage as the most practical use case for consumer wearable technology. What started years ago as stand-alone home health monitoring devices like heart-rate monitors, pedometers, and glucose monitors morphed into wearable fitness trackers. Then came smartwatches, which quickly started cannibalizing health functions. Fast forward a few more years, and there are now full-fledged wearable dedicated intelligent health devices. And it’s almost sure the technology and use cases will expand further in the coming years. Here are some current projections on the wearables market:

  • 1.3 million lives saved by wearables by 2020 — Swiss firm Soreon Research
  • $200 billion saved — Estimated global health cost savings from wearable tech over the next 25 years — Deloitte
  • 50% reduction in hospital visits — Projected reduction in hospitalizations through use of home monitoring devices of chronic diseases — California Telehealth Resource Center
  • $56.8 billion market value market projection for wearable tech by 2025 — MarketsandMarkets

A few years ago, wearable tech was rarely seen outside a lab or a clinic, where doctors used the devices to gather critical patient data or help with recovery. Today, wearable technology can come as a watch, a ring, a pair of contact lenses: a patch, or even a tattoo. The most familiar wearable technology in healthcare by far, for now, are fitness sensors and smartwatches. Chronic diseases like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Diabetes, Hypertension, Dementia, and various behavioral conditions mean that the relevance of wearable technology in healthcare is bound to grow.

Wearable technology is helping people stay healthy in many ways. One of its foremost uses is in the prevention, detection, and management of chronic diseases. Depending on the disease condition, wearable healthcare technology could be vital for prevention, treatment, or control. Some conditions currently benefiting from wearable technology are:

  • Diabetes – Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States and accounts for over $327 billion in direct and indirect costs.
  • Hypertension – In the US, almost half of adults have the condition.
  • Psychological issues – Over 50 million Americans are living with psychiatric conditions. Wearable health technology can assist with screening, monitoring, and diagnosing psychiatric disorders.
  • Heart disease – Wearables can monitor for conditions like AFib and other heart rhythm issues.

What are the Benefits of Healthcare Wearables? – An exhaustive listing of the potential benefits of wearable technologies is beyond the scope of a blog post. (The image at the top of this post is an excellent listing of currently available wearable technologies compiled by Dr. Bertalan Mesko and his team at The Medical Futurist Institute.) But some of the benefits include:

  • Protect an aging population – Recent studies have focused on developing wearable devices and associated algorithms to collect and analyze gait (manner of walking) data for fall prevention.
  • Tracking fitness – Fitness trackers have evolved into a global staple for athletes, sportspeople, and anyone interested in getting and staying fit. The personalized data they collect help doctors monitor activity levels and provide customized care. The development of biosensors has accelerated the adoption of this technology by expanding the form factors that can incorporate the technology. Biosensors are now incorporated into wearable technology, such as shirts, eyewear, wristbands, rings, patches, and even tattoos.
  • Blood Pressure & ECG – Electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG) monitors are the latest addition to wearable vital sign monitoring technology devices. ECG monitoring help people monitor their heart health and can help people detect strokes before they occur. The FDA has cleared medical-grade sensors like the Kardia mobile for several heart conditions. They even have developed a six-lead ECG version that provides a more complete picture of a patient’s ECG than their single-lead version.
  • Women’s Health issues – Several wearables are designed to help you figure out when you ovulate and when your next period is likely. Monitoring menstrual cycles may also be helpful if you have certain health conditions. If, for example, you have menstrual migraine, they might help you make predictions about your attacks.
  • Sleep disorders – Wearable technologies like the Oura ring can track sleep and provide valuable feedback on various sleep disorders.
  • Brain trainingVersus brain training was designed by neuroscientists, and it helps increase impulse control, regulate your emotions, stay focused and sleep better.
Image Credit: Rock Health

What are the potential drawbacks associated with wearable technologies? – While wearable healthcare technology essentially is beneficial, there are some ethical concerns to be aware of. It is possible devices could be hacked. Rigorous encryption is vital to protect user data. Users need to make sure they understand who can access their data and for what purposes. There may be situations where having real-time feedback on one’s physical or mental state could be unhelpful. Some users might find having too much information on their state at a given instant could make it hard to change that state.

How is the digital health care sensor market currently segmented? – Today, the digital health care sensor market is generally segmented into three areas:

  • Wearables – These are those sensors that are worn on the body like fitness trackers, smartwatches, smart clothing, and even temporary tattoos. For example, LifeSignals’ remote patient monitoring system consists of a single-use wearable biosensor that measures electrocardiography, heart rate, respiration rate, skin temperature and body posture data for up to five days. The biosensor wirelessly transmits the encrypted data to a secure cloud-based server; the data can be viewed on the accompanying app or on the remote monitoring dashboard.
  • Injestibles – These are sensors that can be swallowed and transmit data to a sensor worn outside the body like the pill sensors developed by the former company Proteus Digital Health or the PillCam. PillCam is a minimally invasive tool that allows doctors a direct view of the inside of your colon. It takes two images per second, over eight hours, transmitting them to an external sensor that connects to a computer to relay the data.
  • Insideables – Insideables are technologies that are implanted within the human body. They can be both controversial and hugely beneficial. A recent example of this type of technology is a bioabsorbable, transient pacemaker developed by researchers at Northwestern and George Washington University Hospitals.
Image Credit: Medtronic, Inc.

How are organizations implementing the use of digital sensors? – I have long been an admirer of the work being done by the Ochsner Health System in digital health. One of their signature initiatives was developing their version of Apple’s Genius Bar, which they call “O-Bar.” First opened in 2015, each O Bar is staffed with a technology specialist who can answer questions and provide demonstrations. These “genius” bars are where all patients can find the right tool for them and get set up to use it. O Bars are stocked with the latest digital health devices, ranging from wireless blood pressure cuffs to activity trackers, and equipped with iPads loaded with over 100 health apps that can be browsed and demoed before downloading to a personal device. Featured apps address a wide range of topics, including nutrition, fitness, women’s health, diabetes, and smoking cessation.

Image Credit: Ochsner Health

CVS Health has created a service designed to help CVS Caremark pharmacy benefit management clients more quickly roll out and manage third-party health products. Since it’s no easy task for an organization to vet the growing number of digital health products and services streaming onto the market, the Point Solutions Management program looks to stem this burden for its PBM clients by acting as a gatekeeper and ensuring that the digital health vendors it does recommend generate measurable clinical and financial benefits. Express Scripts has developed a similar program initially focused on prevention and management tools for diabetes and cardiovascular, behavioral, and pulmonary conditions, with support for more chronic and complex conditions to come. Watch for a more comprehensive look at the development of “digital health formularies” in an upcoming post this week.

What is the future of wearable technology? – The future of wearable technology in healthcare is bright. Wearable technology is expected to reach more people and has more disease prevention, detection, remote patient monitoring, and treatment applications. The devices are expected to become smaller and more efficient and will cost less. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning algorithms will automate collecting, analyzing, and reporting real-time clinical data to the care team. Wearable sensors will undoubtedly save more costs and save more lives.