“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 Director.com
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.
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.
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 materials – China’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 threads – MIT 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.