What are Healthcare Wearables? The Best Options in 2019
Back in the day, the only way for people to accurately assess their health status was to pay a visit to their doctor to get a series of tests. The problem was that people tend to get too busy with work or their personal lives to do hospital visits regularly.
Fortunately, modern technology has empowered people to take more pro-active roles in monitoring their health. Healthcare wearables – portable devices that monitor specific health-related physiological parameters – have become very popular in the last few years. What are healthcare wearables, and how can they help you? What are the most popular ones that you should consider getting?
What are healthcare wearables?
A healthcare wearable is any device that uses a series of sensors and controllers to collect data from the human body and can be incorporated into our everyday lives as parts of clothing or accessories. The data that these wearables collect could be as simple as the number of steps we have taken in a day or as complex as analyzing the composition of the interstitial fluids beneath our skin.
According to industry experts, the total number of healthcare wearables purchased in 2018 reached about 130 million. As these devices get better and more affordable, the consumer base for healthcare wearable is expected to continue to grow, with the industry reaching a $40 billion revenue by 2022.
Aside from the improving quality of healthcare wearables, there are also other factors that have driven its increasing popularity. An aging population means more and more people are starting to become particular with their health while rising healthcare costs have given people more incentive to make healthy lifestyle choices.
Benefits of healthcare wearables
Ever since healthcare wearables started to come into the scene more than a decade ago, the market has been flooded with various wearables that all promise to help you monitor your health somehow. As you can expect, not all these devices are made equal, and some have not achieved any level of market success. The following are some of the benefits you should be looking for before you purchase a healthcare wearable:
The truth is there have been ways to measure vitals signs or health parameters from home, even before healthcare wearables started to become a thing. For years, there have already been pedometers, oximeters, blood pressure cuffs, and blood sugar measurement kits. One of the reasons why people don’t use these instruments as much as they should is because they are inconvenient, too large to carry around, or are painful.
In contrast, healthcare wearables are designed with convenience in mind. They are small, lightweight, easy to integrate into your everyday wear, and can even be fashionable. Since you can carry around these healthcare wearables wherever you go, there is no excuse for not monitoring your vital signs even while you are traveling or having a particularly busy day.
2. Easy to use
Another reason why traditional medical devices aren’t being used by normal people frequently is because of the perception that they are too complicated, especially for people who have no medical training. In some cases, such as in blood sugar monitoring, it can also be a little painful.
Healthcare wearables were deliberately made to be easy to use. People nowadays are very comfortable operating electronic devices, a fact that the healthcare wearable industry has taken advantage of. Some wearables have taken the smartwatch approach, incorporating a small touchscreen interface to the device itself. When this isn’t possible, the wearable device usually interfaces with a smartphone for easier control and data monitoring.
Even when health monitoring can be done easily, people still cannot quite do it regularly. The thing is people tend to forget these things, despite knowing how important it is to monitor their vital signs. This is no longer a problem with healthcare wearables, as they typically come with automatic functions that measure vital signs at scheduled intervals.
4. Connectivity and Analytics
Most healthcare wearables available nowadays sync the data they collect with a smartphone. You may keep the data on the phone or store it in the cloud for better security. In any case, these wearables come packaged with some sort of app that offers an analysis of your vital signs. These apps can give useful suggestions on how much calories you should be burning, or if your heartbeat seems irregular. They can also display your historical data over time, which is useful for monitoring of vital signs that can change very quickly, such as blood sugar and stress indicators. Some devices also give out an alarm when your vital signs are above or below a predetermined threshold value.
If there’s a single word that can encompass the benefits of healthcare wearables, it’s that they are SMART. This buzzword has certainly been overused, but it’s very appropriate for this situation. Using a combination of intelligent design, automated features, and data analytics, healthcare wearables have the potential of massively improving the quality of lives of many people.
Popular examples of healthcare wearables
If the concept of healthcare wearables is still new to you, you might now know the types of products that are available out there. To help you pick one that is most useful to you, here is a short list of the most popular variants of healthcare wearables.
1. Fitness trackers
Fitness trackers are some of the most common healthcare wearables, thanks to models being released by popular brands such as Fitbit and Apple. The Fitbit Surge is one of the best-selling models of fitness trackers and comes with all the features you’d expect: GPS tracking, step count monitor, and heart rate monitor. The tracker can detect whether you’re running or biking and uploads and syncs your data to an online profile. Fitbit has one of the biggest and most active fitness communities. Through the Fitbit community, you can share your fitness activities, receive encouragement, or even participate in virtual competitions.
Aside from the healthcare parameter monitoring ability of fitness trackers, they also function as smartwatches. This means that they can pair with your smartphone to give notifications when you receive a message or an email. Some models even make it possible to read short messages on the device’s integrated screen. You can also check your calendar, the weather, and today’s news. It can essentially as an extension of your smartphone, albeit one that you don’t have to pull out of your pocket every time.
2. Sleep quality monitors
Sleep is one of the few luxuries on life that, sadly, we often have to sacrifice. Sleep research has come a long way in the past years, and many researchers have come up with ways to improve sleep quality. The gist is that the amount of time you spend in deep sleep determines how well-rested you feel in the morning. However, you will need a device to monitor sleep quality to check if your steps to improve are having any effect.
Pebble Health used to be one of the more popular sleeping monitors, but the Pebble brand was bought out by Fitbit in 2016 and effectively got dissolved. The Fitbit Versa has practically taken the spot that the Pebble Health used to hold in the market. It does manage to get the job done by keeping a record of your sleeping and waking times and displaying a bar graph of the length of deep sleep you had. The Versa then calculates for a standardized score for the quality of sleep you just had. You can keep these records as long as you want and make annotations on them, so you’ll know what works and what doesn’t. Sleep quality trackers don’t guarantee to help you get a good night’s sleep, but at least you’ll know if there’s a problem.
3. Stress level monitors
Stress level might sound like it’s a vague concept, but it can’t be denied that it has become a growing problem in today’s society. Increased pressure at work, traffic, and busy home lives have made most people’s lives more stressful now than they were years or decades ago. In terms of healthcare parameters, measuring stress level isn’t just about getting your pulse rate. This complexity is exactly what wearable stress monitors seek to simplify.
In the market of wearable stress monitors, Lief is one of the most frequently heard names. The Lief is a small patch that you attach to your abdomen area for real-time monitoring of both heart rate and breathing rate. This data is then transformed using an algorithm to determine the value of the heart rate variability (HRV), a clinically-proven biomarker for stress.
If the device detects that you’re going through a stressful situation, the paired Lief mobile app will recommend a few breathing exercises to help you calm down. The app even has a Lief coach feature that will provide insights and reports on your stress level, as well as guidance that can influence your behavior or lifestyle.
4. Blood sugar monitors
In most cases, a wearable blood sugar monitor isn’t just meant to improve a person’s health but could literally be a life-saving device. Because of the absence of the hormone that produces insulin, the bodies of diabetics cannot regulate its glucose levels. Thus, they are prone to either hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia.
Regulate blood glucose monitoring is thus prescribed to diabetics, often several times in a day. However, there’s the small problem of drawing a small amount of blood to do the test, making the process painful and uncomfortable for many people.
If you or your loved one is experiencing this situation, then we’ve got good news: there’s already an array of wearable, non-invasive blood sugar monitors out in the market. The best one we’ve encountered is the Freestyle Libre Flash, which is the first non-invasive glucose monitor that received an FAA approval. It works by first installing a sensor on the back of your upper arm, which attaches using a small needle.
The sensor is just a small, white disk that measures the glucose levels in your interstitial fluids. Since your body is constantly attempting to maintain equilibrium, this is generally considered a valid method of indirectly measuring blood glucose levels. The sensor interfaces with a smartphone app so you can view your real-time and historical blood glucose data.
The sensor isn’t going to stay attached indefinitely, though. Depending on your level of activity, you should be able to use a single sensor for 10 to 14 days. You’ll have to install a new one on your arm if you want to continue using this wearable device.
5. Blood pressure monitors
People with hypertension are probably familiar with having to measure their own blood pressure periodically. They need to be cautious with how their diets, physical activities, and levels of stress affect their blood pressure. Moreover, they also need to wary of symptoms, which can be considered signs of elevated blood pressure.
Unfortunately, blood pressure cuffs are still a bit too bulky to carry around. There’s also a stigma associated with taking your own blood pressure, especially in public. It’s like telling the whole world that you have a heart condition. Is there a reliable but inconspicuous way to regularly measure your blood pressure?
There’s really only one reliable blood pressure monitor available today: the Omron HeartGuide. This device looks just like a wristwatch but actually has an inflatable bladder on the inner surface. This bladder inflates when you want to get a reading and measures your blood pressure using the same technology that traditional digital blood pressure monitors use. By using the same technology and miniaturizing it, the Omron HeartGuide attains reliability even with little innovation.
The Omron HeartGuide looks just like a regular watch, although just a bit larger. It feels snug on the wrist because of the bladder, but it’s something you can get used to. It’s not a smartwatch replacement, though. While it can notify you when you receive emails or text messages, there’s no way for you to read your messages on it.
6. Heart monitors
With so many heartbeats in a day, surely there’s something in the pattern that can reveal aspects of your health. That’s the rationale behind AliveCor KardiaBand, a replacement strap for the Apple Watch that comes with an integrated EKG sensor. This device has been approved by the FDA and is compatible with any Apple Watch model from Series 1 to 3.
You can take EKG readings anytime with just a tap on the screen of the AppleWatch. This is best done when relaxed and seated. Just hold your thumb to the sensor, and the KardiaBand will take a 30-second recording. The results are automatically recorded and synced to your personal account. The device will also analyze your results as they come and will let you know if everything looks normal, or if your results have an unusual pattern such as Fibrillation or Bradychardia.
The KardiaBand doesn’t require your active intervention to monitor your heart rate. With the SmartRhythm feature, the device continuously reads you heart rate to check for abnormalities. If it senses that something could be wrong, it will prompt you to take an EKG reading. It’s usually nothing major, but it’s nice to know that the device is looking out for you all the time.
7. Medical alert devices
Medical alert devices are relatively new entries to the field of healthcare wearables, so the selection isn’t quite as wide. These devices are mostly designed for the elderly or those with disabilities who may meet accidents in their homes and may need emergency medical response.
A central component of medical alert devices is fall detection. Whether a person has a heart condition or is just physically too weak, they are prone to falls which may incapacitate them.
A consumer favorite in the market for these devices is the Philips Lifeline, a medical alert system that has managed to convince a customer base of more than 30,000 users. The system consists of two components: a base unit and a wearable pendant. The base unit allows for communication with emergency medical centers through a phone line or through the internet.
The pendant, as small as it is, is equipped with accelerometers and barometric sensors that can detect if the wearer has fallen. If a fall is detected, the pendant connects the user to the central response center. The pendant has two-way communication capabilities so that the injured party can respond to the communications center. If no response is received, emergency services will be automatically dispatched.
What made the Philips Lifeline the medical alert device of choice is their excellent customer service. With 24/7 response centers and flexible payment plans, they have become the runaway favorite in this particular field.
Wearable healthcare devices seem like the natural next step in the evolution of healthcare. Instead of relying on hospitals and doctors, ordinary people are now empowered with technology to be more accountable for their own health.
The devices we have right now aren’t perfect, but they cover most of the typical vital signs such as blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar. There are also devices designed to improve the quality of life, such as fitness trackers and sleep quality trackers. Lastly, there are the medical alert devices that can give us peace of mind that our elderly loved ones are kept safe even when they are alone.
One thing to remember about these wearable healthcare devices is that they should not be treated as alternatives to our regular visits with medical professionals. Even all the advanced sensors and analytics cannot equal the expertise of an actual, human doctor.