What will wearable technology look like in a decade? Shoes that charge your phone’s battery on the way to work? Earrings that track your heart rate and body temperature?
Buttons with embedded GPS to track your movements and learn your habits? While these may seem unrealistic or outlandish now, they are just some of the products that wearable technology experts predict will be on the market in the future (of course, some are anticipated sooner than others).1
Wearable technology is beginning to change the way many industries operate—from smart sports clothing that can measure heart rate, calories burned and stride length;2 to smart glasses that can allow engineers to access training videos or contact experts while installing machinery.3 Yet many would argue that the greatest potential of wearable technology lies in healthcare.
Traditionally, the healthcare sector has been one of the slower adopters of technology, due to its complex nature and high level of regulation. But with the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT)—connected devices that ‘talk’ to each other through internet connection—the consumer is increasingly being offered the opportunity to take control of their health, and in turn, make healthier life choices, with wearables as the gateway to this empowered-patient world.4
In the past few years, wearables have demonstrated huge potential for multiple uses within the healthcare industry. With heart-monitoring devices such as the KardiaBand , people can now remotely monitor their cardiac health, without the need for a trip to the emergency room.
The band uses the Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor for continuous monitoring, and if an irregular heartbeat is sensed, it asks users to place their fingers on its small electrocardiogram (ECG) pad for a quick test. With the results, users can identify any warning signs that may indicate atrial fibrillation, and then share this information with their HCP, to inform their discussions and treatment decisions, or trigger a trip to the emergency room if needed.5,6
People now have health risk information at their fingertips, literally. The technology in L’Oreal and MC10’s UV Sense thumbnail patch can inform users of their UV exposure throughout their day; alerting them at times when they are most exposed to UV rays so they can take action to protect their skin. The battery-free sensor, which is only nine millimeters in diameter and two millimeters thick, can be worn for up to two weeks, at which point an NFC-enabled smartphone can download the data, so the sensor can be re-used.5
But wearable technology is evolving to become far more than just the monitoring and tracking of health. New Jersey-based company ThirdEye has recently designed a pair of smart glasses that could make a huge difference in the lives of people with dementia. Wearers can look at a family member, and through a combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR), ThirdEye can use image recognition to identify the individual, and display a label with their personal information next to their face in the wearer’s view.7
And it’s not only people with dementia who could benefit from the evolution of smart glasses technology. With the Aira wearable, the blind or visually impaired can receive voice-guidance as they move about their day, helping them to audibly enjoy their surroundings, while getting around safely.5
The tiny camera mounted on the glasses tracks the wearer’s movement, and describes their environment to help them navigate around, for instance, telling them where the door is, or that there’s a chair in their way. The Aira agents can even take photos from the camera on behalf of the users, termed ‘Explorers’, as well as assisting with shopping, learning or running a business. Built-in GPS trackers can also help Explorers reach their intended destinations.5
With so many promising healthcare wearables on the market (and even more to come in the future), you could ask: will they eventually erase the need for human doctors? Well, the simple answer is not yet—after all, the compassion and empathy of another human is still invaluable in care—but they’re undoubtedly beginning to change the way both healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients operate.
The constant monitoring that many wearables offer has the potential to make people more proactive about their health, and hopefully in turn, prevent future health problems. The data derived from this monitoring can be used to aid diagnosis and inform HCPs’ decision-making, rather than them relying entirely on a patient’s memory and tests in clinic. As a result these technologies have the potential to augment rather than replace HCP decision-making, helping them to be more effective in their jobs.8
But the technology in devices such as the Aira and ThirdEye glasses goes beyond simply assisting HCPs in their role. As the healthcare wearable market continues to grow, perhaps we’ll see an even greater shift in the HCP-patient equilibrium, where people can effectively monitor and manage all aspects of their health without the need to visit their doctor except for major emergencies. But adapting consumer devices for clinical use isn’t without its challenges. Privacy, security, and reliability of data are all hurdles that will need to be overcome in order for remote monitoring to become the norm. If we can overcome these obstacles, we can utilise the wealth of data that wearables and other connected devices can provide, to drive the shift from reactive to proactive healthcare.8