Smartwatches and other wearables aren’t just for fashion and fitness. Increasingly, they’re helping healthcare providers collect and analyze wider swaths of patient data between appointments or after surgery — valuable insights that can inform treatment.
Globally, an estimated 198.5 million devices will be sold by the end of the year, marking an annual growth of 15.3 percent. Much of that boost, according to IDC research, is coming from adoption in the healthcare segment.
Although the tally includes wristbands, “smart” clothing and step-counting shoes, smartwatches account for nearly half of all sales cited in the research.
That could be due in part to the Food and Drug Administration’s 2018 clearance of the Apple Watch’s electrocardiogram and irregular heart rhythm monitoring functions (the watch is not considered a medical device, however, and FDA clearance isn’t the same as approval).
Apple Watch Helps Collect Heart Health Data
The potential has inspired organizations such as Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, which in 2015 launched a pilot program to better track patients with uncontrolled hypertension.
An effort to use patients’ wireless blood pressure cuffs to transmit readings to their Apple Watches is the first of its kind in the U.S. to help patients manage a chronic condition.
The organization now also uses the Apple Watch to monitor patients with atrial fibrillation — and it has outfitted doctors too. Alerts about a patient's declining condition can be sent right to a provider's wrist, “even if they have gloves on,” Dr. Richard Milani, Ochsner’s chief clinical transformation officer, recently told HealthTech.
Ochsner isn’t alone. A survey of hospital executives from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society and AT&T found 47 percent of hospitals are providing wearables to patients with chronic diseases. And about a third of them issue the devices to enhance post-op and preventive care.
Smartwatch Data Boosts Medical Studies and Patient Care
Given their functions and widespread popularity, smartwatches are also a boon to health researchers. This year, Stanford University announced results of a study that found the Apple Watch could detect atrial fibrillation, a leading stroke risk, with 84 percent accuracy.
Exciting developments are set to further leverage the analytical power of these tools.
In September, Apple made headlines after announcing three medical studies involving institutions such as Harvard University and the World Health Organization. The partnerships will collect user-generated data from Apple Watches and the company’s Research app — with efforts focused on women’s menstruation and overall health, everyday noise exposure and hearing loss, and the relationship between movement and heart health.
Other manufacturers are embracing data-driven wellness functions to help patients and providers keep tabs. Samsung’s Galaxy Watch can now track a wearer’s blood pressure. And Fitbit, which has broadened its scope from activity trackers, has partnered with Google Cloud so users can safely transmit health data to their doctors and their electronic medical records.
Wearables Bring Forth Challenges and Potential
A surging pool of data, collected properly and with respect to privacy, has the potential to lower healthcare costs by reducing in-person medical visits and detecting potential issues before they escalate. And there’s no question the tools enable users to take a more proactive role.
Still, smartwatches and other wearables must remain a complement to the care experience. As a Forbes contributor noted last month, clinicians are crucial to navigating false positive results and boosting compliance among users when manual data entry is required.
There’s also an onus on tech companies to develop and market affordable products to democratize the benefits of data collection and self-monitoring. After all, greater participation means more lifesaving data to advance the shared duty of better healthcare for everyone.