The doctor on your wrist: how wearables are revolutionizing healthcare

a female athlete stretching

If it weren’t for her smartwatch, 18-year-old Deanna Recktenwald might not be alive today. Her watch pinged to warn her that her resting heart rate was rocketing, and she immediately went to get checked out; if she hadn’t, she might have died from kidney failure.

Sarah-Jayne McIntosh had a similarly narrow escape. Her Fitbit warned her that her heart rate was three times normal; as she told The Mirror: “The doctors said that if I hadn't phoned for an ambulance when I did, and if I wasn't wearing my Fitbit to track my heart rate, I could have suffered a heart attack/cardiac arrest and could have died.”

Another Fitbit solved a medical mystery: a 42-year-old man was rushed to a New Jersey ER after a seizure, but couldn’t tell staff how long his heart had been racing. The doctors interrogated his Fitbit HR to determine when his heart rate had spiked, information that enabled them to decide whether it was safe to give him appropriate treatment.

William Monzidelis, 32, is certain that his watch saved his life. It urged him to seek immediate medical help; by the time he arrived at hospital 30 minutes later, he’d lost 80% of his blood. He’d suffered an erupted ulcer, and received life-saving surgery just in time.

A doctor on your wrist

We’re just scratching the surface of what wearable devices can do. For example, the Apple Watch is enabling large-scale research into heart conditions and can even detect diabetes – but in the longer term the Watch, and devices like it, will be capable of much more. Wearables will help to change the way we live, and the way we die.

One of the biggest causes of premature death is an unhealthy lifestyle – not just obvious things such as smoking or drinking, but poor diet and lack of exercise. Wearable devices can help nudge us towards improving those things, and in some cases there can be a financial reward: some insurers offer discounted premiums to customers who wear wearable devices on the grounds that they’re more likely to take positive steps to improve their health.

The Apple Watch is enabling large-scale research into heart conditions

The Apple Watch is enabling large-scale research into heart conditions

But wearables can do much more than track your steps or record the calories you’re consuming. Medical-grade health sensors are coming, and they can monitor all kinds of things. For example, Swiss firm Biovotion has a wearable that tracks heart rate, blood oxygen, skin temperature, sleep patterns and so on. 

At the University of Waterloo in Canada, researchers are working on diabetes monitors that don’t require the wearer to prick their finger several times a day. The device uses radar and artificial intelligence and is being developed by Google and the German hardware firm Infineon. According to project head, Professor George Shaker, “I’m hoping we’ll see a wearable device on the market within the next five years.”

Even beauty firms are getting in on the wearable act: L’Oreal recently launched a wearable UV sensor to help protect against skin cancer.

L'Oreal UV sensor

L’Oreal’s device shows what future wearables might be like. It doesn’t need a battery, it’s only 9mm long and it fits almost imperceptibly on your thumbnail. It then transmits to your phone via NFC – the same tech used in contactless payment systems – where its companion app analyses the data and tells you if it’s time to get out of the sun.

And such sensors aren’t just useful for sun worshippers. People with Lupus can only be in the sun for so long before their symptoms flare up. Some sensors, such as Shade, are so sensitive that they can even they can even detect the UV rays from light bulbs.

Always on

What’s really interesting about wearables is that they can deliver continuous tracking. That means we can get a much better picture of our health than we could ever get from a 'body MOT' at the gym or doctor. By tracking multiple bits of data about your body all day every day, you can see the big picture of your health – and your doctor can use that data to spot patterns that might otherwise be missed. 

When that data is combined with other people’s, it can save lives.

Apple watch and phone with researchkit

That’s what Apple’s ResearchKit is all about. It enables researchers to gather massive amounts of data (provided voluntarily) from people’s devices, and to use that data to gain insight into conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, autism, chronic heart conditions, skin cancer and epilepsy. And with that data, developers can create apps with CareKit to help people manage their conditions.

As Apple puts it: “Rather than relying solely on doctor visits, you’ll be able to regularly track your symptoms and medications, and even share the information with your care team for a bigger – and better – picture of your health.”

Lost and found

Wearables aren’t just about monitoring your vital signs. They can be of more practical use too. In Ireland, researchers have created a group called Carelink to create wearable technology for patients with dementia – something that affects more than 55,000 people in Ireland alone, with numbers rising every year. Patients with dementia can be prone to wandering, and Carelink is developing low-cost, energy-efficient sensors that connect to the cloud and enable wanderers to be located and helped.

Wearable technology can also be very useful for people with disabilities. The Wavio platform uses real-time sound recognition to create an electronic ear for deaf people, while South Korean startup Dot is developing smartwatches that communicate in braille.

Wavio hearing aid

Another big benefit to wearable technology is that it enables healthcare providers to monitor patients without requiring them to visit the doctor or stay in hospital. Miniaturization, and the relentless pace of technological advances, means that hardware you’d previously need to visit a hospital to be treated with can now be worn on your body and its data transmitted via an app. In the US, for example, Vitalconnect brings hospital monitoring of vital signs to a small sensor that transmits whenever it can get a mobile data signal.

It feels very much like we’re reaching a tipping point: ever-smaller, ever-smarter devices are making the previously impossible possible, enabling us to learn more about our bodies and how to look after them. Plenty of technologies promise to change your life, but wearables genuinely will.

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