Wearables in healthcare: three innovative use cases

Technology companies from both consumer electronics space and healthcare technology markets entering the expanding market for wearables market are ultimately on a quest to mitigate population patient problems by measuring physiological processes of the human body using wearables.

This is done using what  Patel, Asch, and Volpp, refer to in a 2015 article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association as the “quantified self.” Through the “quantified self,” data collected by wearables can assist users to adopt better health habits or monitor conditions more effectively and allow clinicians greater insight into their patient’s health beyond the examining room.

With the lofty and equally laudable goal of using wearable-gathered data to solve common health problems, do wearables in healthcare actually deliver on their promise in improving outcomes for patients? The following cases illustrate that innovative uses of wearables in the healthcare setting could be delivering tangible results.

1. Fitness trackers and smartphones for chronic pain measurement and management

For patients suffering from chronic pain continued monitoring of physical activities away from clinical settings can provide valuable insights into a patient’s progress in pain reduction, management, and healing.

A recent study published in the IEEE Journal of Selected Topics in Signal Processing illustrates how smartphones and wearables can be used to monitor chronic pain sufferers by using these devices’ accelerometry and location sensing, audio analysis of speech, image processing for facial expressions to allow clinicians to look for cues that might indicate changes in pain levels a patient is experiencing that self-reporting may not reveal.

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For example, location sensing technology can sense whether a patient is avoiding more difficult terrain such as inclines, audio data collected can offer nonverbal characteristics from speech that can indicate whether a speaker’s psychological and emotional state could be indicative of increased pain levels or step data collected from accelerometry can indicate whether a person’s gait has been altered due to heightened pain levels.

2. Direct integration of the Healthkit ecosystem into EHRs

The Apple Healthkit ecosystem found on iPhone and the Apple Watch currently provides collects a wealth of health and wellness data and with the help of compatible third-party apps, insights can be expanded to an even greater scope. However, the data collected by this technology has until this point been largely for personal use.

Recently Apple developers have launched an effort to encourage the integration of Healthkit data with EHRs with several major vendors offering the ability to integrate these data into their systems. Further, a patient’s clinical data collected could be shared across clinical settings. As aptly described in a report on CNBC’s news website “Essentially, Apple would be trying to recreate what it did with music — replacing CDs and scattered MP3s with a centralized management system in iTunes and the iPod — in the similarly fragmented and complicated landscape for health data.”

3. Consumer fitness trackers  

Consumer fitness trackers wearables’ promise in promoting healthy behavior changes and contributing to improved health outcomes by allowing users to track physical activity levels and overall well-being which in turn has been causally linked   improvements in users’ cardiovascular health, weight loss, levels of physical activity. These products offer an intrinsic reward for those who are motivated to make gains in physical activity.

However, questions abound as to their long-term efficacy in this capacity, particularly with regard these devices ability to accurately track movement and high user abandonment rates. Despite these concerns, consumer fitness trackers can still factor heavily in health outcome improvement as these devices become more interactive by sharing data with EHRs through patient portals, integrating into the internet of things, sharing user data for analysis by other devices.

One such example involves taking fragments of data such as heart rate, the time it takes to return to resting heart rate after movement, sleep activity and blood pressure and overall movement and combining them as they are shared with remote systems through the internet of things and analyzed to provide predictive insights as to a patient’s risk for chronic disease and offer real time insights to guide preventative care.      

As wearable technology improves its ability to collect more nuanced data, companies in this space have begun to seek out more innovative uses for wearables in improving health outcomes.  However, it appears that the most useful innovations in the near future will rest in the ability to better analyze and interpret data collected by wearables for clinical use.

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Jeff Green

About the author…

Jeff Green, MPH, JD works as a freelance writer and consultant in the Healthcare information Technology Space.

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Jeff Green