Fitness-monitoring wearables is the new tech revolution that is disrupting medicine. But is it really?
Indeed, strong demand on the global market of wearable wellness technology is estimated to move 320 million consumer devices in 2022 and reach 440 million units by 2024. While there is no question that an insufficiently tapped need for more accessible healthcare has contributed greatly toward the wide appeal of such products to regular consumers, they are decidedly not medical devices, and should not be used as the basis for any wearer to self-diagnose.
Even so, their benefits have been undeniable: stimulating increased physical activity and the integration of healthier habits into the day-to-day lifestyle, as well as inspiring wearers to become better educated about things like quality of sleep and the importance of recovery. As trends continue to support more consumer-facing healthcare, perhaps it is not too farfetched that smartwatches and wristbands will soon enough be both widely accessible gadgets and valuable health tracking devices.
A Matter of Great Distinction: Medical vs Wellness/Fitness
As they provide transparent data on vital signals in ways that can be easily accessed and reviewed without the consultation of a professional, wellness wearables create an increased sense of empowerment and autonomy regarding health evaluations. But, while wellness is indeed integral to good preventive medicine practices, it is essential to distinguish between the accessories that we have come to refer to as “health tracking” wearables and an actual medical device.
Fitness smartwatches and their wide assortment of apps can indeed be practical companions in understanding how your body deals with various types and intensities of effort and help guide toward better fitness habits. However, the readings and stats they provide should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt and are certainly not a substitute for regular medical checkups or a medical doctor’s recommendation, investigation, or diagnosis. While long-term continued use can, over time, refine the readings to more closely match the wearer, current accuracy capabilities are still far from the standards of dedicated medical device software and manufacturing.
A Good Start: Better-Informed Wearers and More Accurate Devices
The mental and emotional health in which we relate to our gadgets has a big part to play in how we perceive the insights they offer, especially since the average wearer is not very well informed on the statistics their readings are gauged against, nor do they possess the complex knowledge of a medical professional.
While there is indeed great potential in elevating the “fad” gadget industry to reliable medical-grade software and engineering, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Admittedly, most of the widely available smart wearables do an OK job of observing and measuring some body signals, but there is still a lot of ground to cover in terms of context and personalization. At best, our wearables can participate by contributing long-term data, which might reveal patterns relevant to a medical professional, who is the key to a proper healthcare evaluation.
Wrist-Sized Super Computers Full of Promise
Wellness wearables are, so far, proving to be valuable in medical research, as the wealth of data that can be extracted has the potential to tackle population health dynamics and perhaps even the possibility to forecast health trends. A recent study published in JMIR mHealth and uHealth found that the fields of application for wearables’ data have diversified considerably, as North American and European scientists have turned to it for research into COVID-19 prediction; fertility tracking; heat-related illness; drug effects; psychological interventions; as well as underrepresented populations, such as individuals diagnosed with rare diseases. While data anonymity and security are key concerns in the process, wearables offer a great promise of new possibilities for a broad spectrum of unprecedented health research.
For instance, research published in the Global Heart Journal has found that mobile ECG recording technology can be a feasible tool in screening for atrial fibrillation (AF) in low-resource locations, as it can detect a significant proportion of cases that would otherwise be undiagnosed for lack of access to traditional screening.
The fundamental promise of artificial intelligence technology remains that it can deliver accurate predictions at very little marginal cost, a promise which would benefit healthcare systems the world over. However, there is yet more investment to be made in research and development, before it delivers on reducing costs. But combining AI with widely accessible wearable technology can transform home health monitoring by trusting advanced software to address the multitude of non-acute health decisions that do not require the validation of a skilled clinician, such as intervening in real-time to alert a patient to take prescribed medication, get exercise, or take action to reduce stress, based on changes in their vital signs.
Moreover, harnessing the computational power of machine learning algorithms can contribute greatly toward realizing the need for context and personalization at a time when wearables’ software explores more and more advanced health metrics, thereby generating more complex data than ever before. Integrating AI with wellness wearables software would help to personalize the consumer’s data and present it back to them in a more useful context that takes into account all current readings and measurements, as well as historic user data. What’s more, AI-driven software could integrate real-time information such as local weather and air pollution conditions into its analysis, and compute recommendations based on relevant in-situ data that goes beyond what the device can measure at the wearer’s wrist.
Transforming wellness gadgets into reliable health tracking devices may ripple into other global revolutionary benefits, such as prompting significant improvements in data security infrastructure, inclusivity of healthcare delivery, sensor manufacturing technologies, communications software and technology, and much more.
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