The activity tracker that goads a sedentary office worker into 10,000-step days is just a glimpse of the potential of wearable computers to improve health and transform healthcare.
“It’s now possible to get an accurate EKG from an Apple Watch with the right software,” says Kate McCarthy, senior healthcare analyst at Forrester. “Wearables make it possible to promote good health, manage chronic conditions and alert patients and clinicians to problems in pre-acute stages.”
Unlike injectable and ingestible healthcare products, wearables don’t require U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. The quantity available both to consumers and clinicians — ranging from Bluetooth-enabled scales to sophisticated cardiac monitors — is growing at a dazzling pace, McCarthy says.
The task ahead for researchers and physicians is to identify the conditions that can be treated or managed with the help of wearables and to find out how the technology can be used most effectively.
1. CHLA Taps Activity Trackers for Family Weight Loss
At Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), Dr. Juan Espinoza is leading clinical trials that study how Fitbit activity trackers might enhance a structured weight loss program aimed at reducing childhood obesity. The CHLA trial is a family-based program that provides activity trackers to the overweight child and adults in the family, says Espinoza.
“It’s a pediatric study, but parents shop and cook and are the support system, so they’re a big part of the weight-management picture and we give them Fitbits, too,” Espinoza says.
More than 150 families have participated in the CHLA study, which asks all families to commit to an eight-week weight loss program. At enrollment, families were randomly assigned to either receive the activity trackers or be part of a control group, which takes on the same challenge without the trackers.
Early indications show that the Fitbits help families stick to the program, a key to the success of any weight management initiative, says Espinoza. In fact, 85 percent of the families equipped with Fitbits completed the program, compared to less than 60 percent of the control group, he says.
“The families tell us that the Fitbits are a concrete reminder to make changes in their lifestyles, and that reaching activity goals makes everyone feel good,” says Espinoza.
2. At the University of Houston, Wearables Keep Patients Steady
Beom-Chan Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Houston, is studying how smartphones along with wearable motion sensors and biofeedback actuators can help prevent falls for patients with Parkinson’s disease and other conditions that affect balance and stability.
During balance rehabilitation training sessions, Lee’s Smarter Balance System (SBS) uses Bluetooth-enabled sensors to collect and relay information on a patient’s body position and movement to a smartphone running the SBS application. The smartphone then delivers visual and touch guidance in real time as a reminder to the patient to adjust his or her position. Research data from the sessions is available to clinicians, allowing them to track patient progress.
“The biofeedback aspects of the SBS system can help the patients train more effectively on their own, and also increase their motivation,” says Lee. “Compliance with home exercise programs is typically quite low but it improves when people know how they’re doing as they’re doing it.”
Lee expects SBS to help in the rehabilitation of patients with a wide variety of diseases, injuries and chronic conditions, such as strokes, spinal cord injuries and joint replacements.
“Many of the conditions for which SBS would be most useful are related to aging,” says Lee, adding that as smartphone adoption grows in older populations, the mobile, wearable SBS system can cater to these digitally adapted adults.
3. Carolinas HealthCare Puts Wearable Data in Context
As the universe of healthcare wearables rapidly expands, it’s accompanied by a growing need to aggregate and interpret the data the devices produce.
To this end, Carolinas HealthCare System (CHS) in Charlotte, N.C., has developed the MyCarolinas Tracker app, which can gather information from scores of Bluetooth-enabled electronic monitors and trackers, display the data on a smartphone and interpret the data’s significance.
“We can take the data from about 200 devices, bring it together and provide clinical context,” says Pamela Landis, vice president of information and analytic services at CHS, which operates more than 900 healthcare locations in the Southeast.
“We track and create dashboards for the factors that are important to the individual patient,” Landis says. “We let them know when they’ve met their goals and when there’s something off that they need to get to right away because of their specific conditions.”
The app securely transmits the data to CHS, where it is incorporated into the individual’s electronic health record. The app provides critical information for physicians and improves communication between doctors and patients, says Landis. She notes that the rise of wearable technologies is changing patients’ relationship to healthcare.
“We’re seeing that when more technology is in patients’ hands, the more they become partners in their own care and become interested in managing their own health,” Landis says.
Forrester’s McCarthy agrees that wearable technologies can offer empowerment as well as data.
“Patient-reported information is notoriously inaccurate, not because they lie, but because they can’t remember in the level of detail that’s useful,” McCarthy says. “The best of the technology offers data points and context that they (physicians) can act on.”