Wearable technology for tracking health could save lives

From sports to healthcare

Wearable technology is huge in the sports arena. From running to swimming, wearable sports devices are enabling users to track their performance in new and exciting ways, including real-time GPS mapping, in-depth analytics, and open-source community sharing.

However, wearable tech for health has the potential to go much deeper than tracking training activity. In particular, the medical arena could potentially make valuable use of the monitoring abilities of smart devices.

One area which is gaining traction is personalised healthcare. For example, 3M discusses the use of digital technology for improving care in ageing populations. The hope is that advancements in wearable hardware will facilitate close personal monitoring, tailored care delivery, and analysis of how treatment is performing. Additionally, using digital technology, all of this could be achieved virtually.

Proactively detecting disease

Disease detection is another exciting opportunity born from the use of wearable technology. Factors like resting heart rates can be the starting point for proactive health monitoring. Identifying anomalies in these statistics could be the key to understanding the immune system and reacting to important changes.

For example, someone who has recently been infected with a virus or other illness; their body may react in subtle ways before noticeable symptoms arise. Wearable tech used for health monitoring could identify the signs of this reaction – enabling more proactive detection.

People could then be notified if they’re getting ill sooner than they might on their own and act accordingly. Taking the runner as an example, they might experience a drop in performance and so take a break from training to recover.

If people were able to catch the cycle early, they could potentially mitigate the progress of their illness and minimise their health impacts, or even help prevent the spread of infection to others.

Data-driven medical innovation

The data that comes with all this activity is also rich with potential.

Think about commercial products like heart rate monitors and smart watches. People are inputting data into these devices potentially every day. This is an unprecedentedly rich source of information. A resource which has the potential to transform the face of healthcare.

There is a valuable opportunity to use data from common running apps alone to inform everything from large-scale health monitoring to disease diagnosis. Extracting this information could help us generate new disease models or medical processes. For example, we could start to see trends in people’s physical wellbeing that reveal common indicators for illness. This knowledge could inform how medical staff treat patients and how the public react to physiological changes.

Covid-19 has made this a very topical idea with nation-wide applications. Imagine if we could detect signs of Covid-19 through subtle changes in our physiology – before people experience known symptoms such as fever or coughing. Imagine if we could detect Covid-19 in people who have no external symptoms.

If we were able to collate and analyse data from wearable technologies, we could potentially understand many unanswered questions about a whole range of viruses. We could track when people start to feel symptoms against when these symptoms show up on wearable devices. This might allow us to characterise the lifecycle of different illnesses and to recognise when a new virus is present in the population.

Analysing for patterns could tell us why some people get symptoms and others don’t, or why certain people have more serious symptoms than others. It also opens up the door to detecting this trend early on and understanding how you might react to the viruses in advance.

In summary, if we can identify and understand key markers for different viruses in individuals, we can treat their specific health impacts. We could take action much more proactively and in a more informed way.

Overcoming data challenges

While there are hopeful visions for how wearable technology data can be used in the health industry, there are still various challenges to contend with.

Firstly, there is room to improve the data gathered from wearable devices. For example, wrist-based tech won’t detect heart rate as accurately as a chest-mounted device. However, as technology develops, it will become more reliable and will provide more consistent, higher accuracy data.

We can also use data fusion techniques to merge data from different wearable sensors to provide context to the data received. For example, combining accelerometer data and temperature data with heart rate data can provide insights into the activity. This can then be used to baseline user profiles and then identify anomalies in the data that might be due to illness.

Secondly, data security is a primary consideration. People’s privacy must remain intact – and so how this data is used and shared must be carefully defined.

As the tech develops, both of these challenges will naturally be addressed. Improvements in technological development will smooth out accuracy and analysis issues, while increased usage will necessitate a closer look at data privacy strategies.

The future of wearable technology

It’s clear that the use cases for health monitoring extend far beyond personal health. There are potentially game-changing benefits for population health – with applications in medical research, military deployment, emergency services and more.

Early detection and intervention could save lives during widespread disease events. With more advanced knowledge about how humans react to a disease, pandemics could be proactively controlled. Key decision-makers could be empowered to create informed prevention measures at much earlier stages than previously possible.

The use of widespread population data could also be integral to academic medical studies. Being able to tie health data to social and demographic information would have huge implications for understanding the root cause of illnesses and medical issues.

The applications have come a long way from recreational, user-facing products. Starting with the commercial facing Hewlett-Packard’s calculator wristwatch, the concept of wearable technology is astounding pervasive in critical national industries. The applications have come a long way from these humble beginnings and promise to go much further.

Our BioAware solution has the ability to model disease spread and detect outbreaks earlier than traditional methods. Download our brochure for more information.

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