What if our clothes could detect cancer? That may seem like a far fetched, “only applicable in a sci-fi universe” type of concept, but such clothes do exist and similar devices that merge technology and medicine are actually quite prominent today. The wearable technology industry, a field poised to grow to $11.61 billion by 20201, is exploding in the healthcare market as numerous companies produce various devices that help us in our day to day lives such as wearable EKG monitors and epilepsy detecting smart watches. Advancements in sensor miniaturization and integration with medical devices have greatly opened this interdisciplinary trade by lowering costs. Wearable technology ranging from the Apple Watch to consumable body-monitoring pills can be used for everything from health and wellness monitoring to early detection of disorders. But as these technologies become ubiquitous, there are important privacy and interoperability concerns that must be addressed.
Wearable tech like the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ watch uses sensors to obtain insightful data about its wearer’s health. This bracelet-like device tracks steps walked, distance traveled, calories burned, pulse, and overall fitness trends over time.2 It transmits the information to an app on the user’s smartphone which uses various algorithms to create insights about the person’s daily activity. This data about a person’s daily athletic habits is useful to remind them that fitness is not limited to working out at the gym or playing a sport--it’s a way of life. Holding tangible evidence of one’s physical activity for the day or history of vital signs empowers patients to take control of their personal health. The direct feedback of these devices influences patients to make better choices such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or setting up a doctor appointment early on if they see something abnormal in the data from their EKG sensor. Connecting hard evidence from the body to physical and emotional perceptions refines the reality of those experiences by reducing the subjectivity and oversimplification that feelings about personal well being may bring about.
Not only can wearable technology gather information from the body, but these devices can also detect and monitor diseases. Diabetes, the 7th leading cause of death in the United States,3 can be detected via AccuCheck, a technology that can send an analysis of blood sugar levels directly to your phone.4 Analysis software like BodyTel can also connect patients with doctors and other family members who would be interested in looking at the data gathered from the blood test.5 Ingestible devices such as the Ingestion Event Marker take monitoring a step further. Designed to monitor medication intake, the pills keep track of when and how frequently patients take their medication. The Freescale KL02 chip, another ingestible device, monitors specific organs in the body and relays the organ’s status back to a Wi-Fi enabled device which doctors can use to remotely measure the progression of an illness. They can assess the effectiveness of a treatment with quantitative evidence which makes decision-making about future treatment plans more effective.
Many skeptics hesitate to adopt wearable technology because of valid concerns about accuracy and privacy. To make sure medical devices are kept to the same standards and are safe for patient use, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has begun to implement a device approval process. Approval is only granted to devices that provably improve the functionality of traditional medical devices and do not pose a great risk to patients if they malfunction.6In spite of the FDA approval process, much research is needed to determine whether the information, analysis and insights received from various wearable technologies can be trusted.
Privacy is another big issue especially for devices like fitness trackers that use GPS location to monitor user behavior. Many questions about data ownership (does the company or the patient own the data?) and data security (how safe is my data from hackers and/or the government and insurance companies?) are still in a fuzzy gray area with no clear answers.7 Wearable technology connected to online social media sites, where one’s location may be unknowingly tied to his or her posts, can increase the chance for people to become victims of stalking or theft. Lastly, another key issue that makes medical practitioners hesitant to use wearable technology is the lack of interoperability, or the ability to exchange data, between devices. Data structured one way on a certain wearable device may not be accessible on another machine. Incorrect information might be exchanged, or data could be delayed or unsynchronized, all to the detriment of the patient.
Wearable technology is changing the way we live our lives and understand the world around us. It is modifying the way health care professionals think about patient care by emphasizing quantitative evidence for decision making over the more subjective analysis of symptoms. The ability for numeric evidence about one’s body to be documented holds people accountable for the actions. Patients can check to see if they meet their daily step target or optimal sleep count, and doctors can track the intake of a pill and see its effect on the patient’s body. For better or for worse, we won’t get the false satisfaction of achieving our fitness goal or of believing in the success of a doctor’s recommended course of action without tangible results. While we have many obstacles to overcome, wearable technology has improved the quality of life for many people and will continue to do so in the future.
- [Hunt, Amber. Experts: Wearable Tech Tests Our Privacy Limits. http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2015/02/05/tech-wearables-privacy/22955707/ (accessed Oct. 24, 2016).
- Vivosmart HR+. https://buy.garmin.com/en-US/US/into-sports/health-fitness/vivosmart-hr-/prod548743.html (accessed Oct. 31, 2016).
- Statistics about Diabetes. http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/statistics/ (accessed Nov. 1, 2016).
- Accu-Chek Mobile. https://www.accu-chek.co.uk/gb/products/metersystems/mobile.html (accessed Oct. 31, 2016).
- GlucoTel. http://bodytel.com/portfolios/glucotel/ (accessed Oct. 31, 2016)
- Mobile medical applications guidance for industry and Food and Drug Administration staff. U. S. Food and Drug Administration, Feb. 9, 2015. http://www.fda.gov/downloads/MedicalDevices/DeviceRegulationandGuidance/GuidanceDocuments/UCM263366.pdf (accessed Oct. 17, 2016).
- Meingast, M.; Roosta, T.; Sastry, S. Security and Privacy Issues with Health Care Information Technology. http://www.cs.jhu.edu/~sdoshi/jhuisi650/discussion/secprivhealthit.pdf (accessed Nov. 1, 2016).