Digital Health

The Endless Possibilities of Wearable Technology in Healthcare

Wearable technology in healthcare

Watches almost became a thing of the past when people started carrying their smartphones in their pockets, but with the integration of technology into wearable devices, the wrist is a popular place to go for information once again. Telling time is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the capability of such devices, and there has been excitement about the benefits of wearable technology in healthcare.

The concept of patients wearing devices to connect with their healthcare data and treatment is not new. Diabetics wear glucose monitors. Implanted devices such as pacemakers and defibrillators provide a life-saving, intimate connection with patients rather than a device that sits on a table that needs to be connected.

With the advent of smart technology that sits on the wrist, healthcare providers are able to work with their patients to gather information for their treatment, along with helping them form healthy habits in their lifestyle.

Why are wearables so powerful?

Wearable technology in healthcare has several benefits, including:

  • It’s personal—these devices are present in moments of a patient’s life when another technology isn’t. People take smartphones and wearable tech with them everywhere—even the bathroom. “It’s an advantage that makes wearables powerful,” said Robert Havasy, senior director of connected health at HIMSS.
  • It focuses on healthy habits. Many of the diseases that impact patients most are the result of decisions made over a lifetime, such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Wearable technology can be programmed to help their wearers track their healthy decisions and set goals. “This can go a long way toward the prevention of these diseases before someone gets sick,” Havasy said.
  • It provides just-in-time coaching that is important for habit forming, including meal plans, step counting, etc.
  • It’s affordable, especially in countries outside the United States.

Why the wrist?

“There is a reason that watches have been utilized for a couple of centuries—the wrist is a convenient place to display vital information,” Havasy said. The more technology advances, wearable tech will become adopted in society.

While having a smartphone in the pocket has perhaps turned one generation away from using a watch, there are some benefits to having tech devices on the wrist, including:

  • It’s easy to view while you’re working, without having to stop what you’re doing and pull something out of a pocket
  • The arm moves more than several other parts of the body, so it’s able to track motion.
  • The wrist has veins and arteries to measure pulse, and the skin is thin enough for sensors to detect blood pressure
  • More portable for activities such as running, hiking and biking

Providers Are in Favor

A survey conducted by HIMSS revealed that more than half of providers found wearable technology in healthcare helpful in monitoring their patients. They utilize commercial and personal-grade wearables to monitor health conditions and vitals, track medications, follow the recovery of post-op patients, and track sleep.

One deterrent is that patients are the ones that have to manually provide the data to their healthcare providers, and nearly 70% of the physicians surveyed favored finding a way to automatically send them the data.

Their top five concerns for patient use of wearables according to the survey were:

  1. Patient technical issues
  2. Data not being accurate
  3. Patient not wearing device properly
  4. False alarms on the device
  5. Patient security/privacy concerns.

The physicians noted that the patients who benefitted the most from the technology are those suffering from cardiac conditions or diabetes.

Healthcare versus Medicine

Clinicians are finding that wearable technology in healthcare has the most benefit when applied to healthy lifestyle decisions to prevent diseases.

“A nurse or doctor can tell a patient they need to eat better and exercise at their annual wellness visit, but they cannot follow patients around the other 364 days of the year,” Havasy said.

Enter wearable tech, which will allow healthcare providers to give their patients a few things to work on, and they can program their goals into their device and have reminders every day.

Wearable technology in healthcare could complement a physician’s care, not replace it. While there are some apps that target specific conditions—such as sugar monitoring apps for diabetic patients—most of the benefits center around lifestyle choices.

Short-Term Results

While there are not a lot of studies on the long-term benefits of wearable technology in healthcare, short-term results in patients may make them worth the cost.

Wearables in healthcare could fall under the Fogg Behavior Model when it comes to decision-making. “Under this model, people are inspired to make a change by their ability to do so, their motivation and by being prompted to,” Havasy said. “Wearable technology provides the prompt someone may need to make a healthy decision, such as exercise.”

And when it comes to motivation—there is a short-term benefit due to something called the Hawthorne Effect, which means people alter their behavior if they know they are being watched. When someone gets a new wearable that can track their exercise, eating and sleep habits—they are more likely to perform better for a time.

This effect is not permanent, however, so a challenge for healthcare providers is to find a way to make these new habits stick.

“Starting with one new habit at a time could contribute to success and allow the resetting of the Hawthorne effect every time a new one is introduced,” Havasy said.

There May be a Will, but Not a Way

Where the Fogg Behavior Model falls apart when it comes to long-term use of wearable technology in healthcare is with the patient’s ability to perform the healthy habit. Someone can have the motivation and a reminder to do something healthy, but not the power to do so at that moment.

"A person can’t walk out of a work meeting because they get an alarm on their device that says they haven’t had enough steps in an hour,” Havasy said.

A smartwatch can prompt one to get more sleep, but it will not be able to drown out the sounds of traffic or stop thoughts about work in the middle of the night.

The solution to this would be to integrate systems so that these apps could coordinate with calendars, maps, etc., to provide real-time solutions to problems. Imagine if a wearable device could sense where someone was and tell them that if they walk back and forth between two points of interest a certain number of times, they would hit their step count for the day. Or if it could automatically provide you with a list of healthy options from the menus of nearby restaurants.

As technology continues to advance, the possibilities for how wearable technology can be integrated into healthcare practice are endless.