Will Wearable Devices Become More Common After COVID-19?

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It’s an understatement to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live our daily lives. Even after the pandemic has come under control, there are still lifestyle changes that will likely remain in place. In the field of healthcare and health monitoring, the use of wearable devices is something that many predict will become more common.

Despite its apparent benefits, there is still some skepticism on exactly how valuable wearable devices can be in healthcare. Will the post-pandemic era become an opportunity for wearable devices to be ubiquitous? Or does the technology need to evolve further to reach this state?

Wearable devices and their capabilities

Apple-Watch-Series-3-38mm

Wearable devices may be incredibly common nowadays, but it is still relatively young as a technology. One of the first smartwatches, Pebble, was developed back in 2013 through a crowdfunding campaign and went on to become moderately successful until 2015. Popular names like Fitbit, Apple Watch, and Garmin have joined the market since them

In the early years, the health monitoring function of these wearable devices was nothing more than a pedometer for counting the number of steps that the user took daily. Despite the limitation, there was enough interest in the technology to drive its growth in the next couple of years.

As the technology evolved, it also gained more features that were valuable for health monitoring. Nowadays, it is common for modern wearable devices to have a heart rate monitor, sleep quality monitor, and pedometer. More specialized devices can have more advanced capabilities including pulse oximeters, fall detectors, brainwave monitors, and sensors for muscle bio-signals.

One thing that has helped in the success of wearable devices has been the gamification and social networking aspects of data management. Through mobile apps and online platforms, users can record their exercise data and see how they compare with their friends and other Fitbit users. Online communities built by device manufacturers have also proved to be effective in helping to encourage their users to reach their fitness goals.

Another key element of wearable devices is that they can be used for big data collection. This means that data from wearable devices can be stored in a cloud server remotely, making it available for remote monitoring and complex analytics.

Leveraging wearable devices for remote care

One of the few silver linings of the recent pandemic is that it highlighted areas of our current healthcare practices that still need to be improved. Some of these problems, such as the low number of healthcare professionals, are larger than any piece of technology can solve. However, the pandemic has also become an opportunity to explore how the use of wearable devices can be beneficial to the healthcare industry.

24/7 monitoring

Polar-H10-Heart-Rate-Monitor

A wearable device collects real-time patient information 24/7. This is in contrast to a patient coming to the hospital for tests and checkups which are, at best, only “snapshots” of the patient’s health status.

Real-time monitoring of physiological conditions can make it easier to detect any deviations from the patient’s baseline data. This is a fundamentally different approach to diagnosis and healthcare and may open the doors to completely new practices in the future.

Early detections of conditions

Big data, or the collection of large datasets, is a key component in the use of wearable devices. These devices can collect data every few seconds or minutes and upload them to a cloud server. The server can then automatically analyze and create trends using the data, potentially detecting aberrations even without having to consult a healthcare professional.

This characteristic of wearable devices makes them useful as tools for the early detection of diseases. There have been studies done on how the use of wearable devices can detect COVID-19 in pre-symptomatic cases by analyzing the resting heart rates relative to physical activity as measured by the number of steps.

As the capabilities of wearable devices grow, so will their utility for early detection. However, this will also require a new data infrastructure and more complex algorithms.

More time for patient care

Wearable devices provide a way for vitals to be collected even without a healthcare professional having to do it manually. This frees up a lot of their time to attend to other patients. Patients also had the luxury of their daily lives being interrupted less for regular collection of vitals. For some patients, the fact that their vitals were being regularly collected and monitored gave them a better sense of security.

All these benefits of wearable devices can make them useful for advancing the concept of remote care. This means that can be monitored or diagnosed, even if they are not within the confines of a healthcare facility or without the active participation of doctors or nurses. This can significantly lessen the burden placed upon the healthcare industry and can address one of the industry’s flaws that have been revealed by the pandemic.

How the use of wearable devices can still improve

wearable-device

Despite the promise of wearable devices, they are still far from ubiquitous. Not all people can see the benefit of having one, and there are even more people who probably cannot afford to buy one anyway. There is also the fact that not all healthcare professionals are convinced that wearable devices can significantly enhance their practices.

What else do wearable devices need to do to maximize their potential? Here are a few areas of improvement that researchers and device developers are working on:

More data will be needed

Right now, most of the wearable devices in the market are capable of three functions – heart rate monitoring, sleep time monitoring, and physical activity tracking. While these parameters have been useful in select circumstances, the data these devices generate is nowhere near comprehensive enough to monitor other health conditions.

There are now more advanced wearable devices that can measure other parameters such as blood pressure, skin temperature, and blood oxygen levels. Another potential area of expansion would involve creating devices that are not just worn on the wrist. We can eventually have smart textiles, smart optic lenses, electronic epidermal tattoos, on-teeth sensors, and smart patches.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many researchers have been exploring the idea of developing a face mask with embedded sensors. These sensors can collect data on breathing rate or might even be able to detect the presence of airborne pathogens. Considering how ubiquitous face masks have become, this idea has huge potential for adoption.

As data grows, so should the infrastructure for storing and processing them. This will require developing new algorithms for handling the data, as well as the conduct of controlled clinical trials to confirm their reliability.

Controlling the flow of information

If wearable devices become more common, there will also be a growth in the volume of data that they generate. When this happens, there will have to be a robust data management system to make sure that data is handled safely and is visible only to the concerned parties.

A subject of debate is whether health information data should be completely visible to patients. Although this may seem like a good idea for the sake of transparency, the truth is that people tend to go to their own conclusions when they see their health data. This can lead to unnecessary panic and anxiety in patients.

A compromise being explored is to allow physicians to identify which information is helpful and relevant to their patients. The key here is to strike a balance between making patients feel that they have access to their health data and discouraging them from self-medicating or getting too anxious. There will obviously be lots of debate about the ethics of such a practice before a standard becomes established.

Avoiding false alarms

smartwatch

As with any automated system, failures of the algorithm for processing data from wearable devices will be inevitable. When this happens, there will be false alarms. Not only will false alarms cause panic for the patients but will also require the attention of nurses and physicians. This can lead to healthcare professionals wasting time attending to false alarms.

The biggest danger of false alarms is that they can cause healthcare professionals to develop “alarm fatigue.” When a true emergency happens, they may not respond with the urgency required of the situation.

This emphasizes the need to research and develop the systems for handling data in a system that uses wearable devices before they are implemented in the public. This can be similar to how a new drug or therapy is tested before being allowed for general use – processes that can take several years.

Physicians may not know what to do with data from wearables

The use of data from wearable devices for diagnosis is going to become a new paradigm, even for physicians. Thus, physicians will also have to go through a learning phase before they can be comfortable with the system.

The challenge also lies with the device and systems developers to present the data in a way that physicians will easily understand. After all, doctors can still be overwhelmed by the volume of data that can be collected from any single wearable device. Summarizing the data in the form of graphs and charts can make them easy to interpret so that doctors can extract the necessary information within the time it takes to do a patient consultation.

Lack of high-quality research and controlled trials

The current state of research on the clinical use of wearable devices is not sufficient to adopt them for standard medical practice. This will be a monumental task that will require input from professionals and researchers from different fields of study including medicine, data science, electronics, behavioral science, and product design.

Aside from proving that data from wearable devices is accurate enough for clinical use, device manufacturers also need to make them more affordable and convince people of their value. Right now, a major limitation of wearable devices is that they are still limited with regards to how many health parameters they can monitor. It is also not practical to expect people to wear multiple wearable devices at once unless they are monitoring a serious medical condition.

Considering all these challenges, it is apparent that wearable devices still have a long way to go before they can be integrated into medical practice. Not only do new devices need to be developed, but the data collected by these devices have to go through controlled clinical trials to vouch for their reliability.

Final thoughts

According to a study done published in Nature Medicine Medicine, data from smartwatches would have been able to predict the onset of COVID-19 in pre-symptomatic patients with a reasonable degree of accuracy. This study only uses two parameters extracted from smartwatch data – the resting heart rate and level of physical activity.

This finding begs the question – would it have been easier to control the pandemic if smartwatches or fitness trackers were more common? Will these wearable devices help in controlling any future pandemic? Just the mere possibility of using wearable devices to prevent global disease outbreaks is enough reason for this technology to be further explored.

It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the healthcare industry to look at innovative ways in how their practice can be enhanced. The use of wearable devices is just one of those ways. There is a long way to go for this technology, but the potential benefits for the entire mankind are huge.