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Medical Wearables: The Future of Healthcare?

Posted on 09.10.2018
Wearable tech is not a new idea. The first Fitbit hit the market in 2013, followed by the Apple watch in 2015. Since then both, in their various iterations, have become almost ubiquitous withone in six people reported to own one in some shape or form. The interest in wearables doesn’t seem to be waning either, with an estimated growth in the market of 35% from 2014 to 2019.
But what does this mean for medicine? Although lifestyle wearables can report on things like steps taken and heart rate, which can be useful for maintaining or improving general
health, they can’t monitor medical conditions. There is a clear market for
devices that can record a patient’s biometric data remotely and then transmit it to their
doctor. Symptoms could be caught earlier, post-op complications pre-empted and
it could potentially lessen some of the stress that frequent hospital visits put
on the NHS.
There are several devices currently in development, with companies like Jawbone shifting focus from consumer wearables to medical tech. It may have been a while since you’ve thought about Blackberry, but they too are reportedly moving into medical wearables as part of their ‘Enterprise of Things’ initiative. And why not? The projected global market value in 2021 for this industry comes in at just a little over $12 billion.
The designs of the devices themselves are also more ambitious than that of their more lifestyle-focused counterparts. Of course, some similarities still exist: both markets want the products to be sleek and convenient to wear. After all, no one wants to walk around with a heavy piece of machinery strapped to their body. However, medical wearables could be used not only to passively record data but also to administer treatment or contact a doctor if the need arose.
So, why isn’t the market already awash with this tech? Well, for every advantage these devices have to offer, they must also pass rigorous vetting and testing to ensure both safety and accuracy. If you miscalculate how many calories you’ve burned in a day, that’s annoying; if you miss an early symptom of a heart attack, it could be fatal. As one commentator put it, “regulatory obstacles, compliance issues, and navigating insurance reimbursement must all be considered when contemplating the broader use of medical-grade wearable devices.”   
The potential scope of this technology is not to be underestimated, however. Some of the conditions that it could help to treat in the future include:
  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Chronic pain
  • Arrhythmia
  • Breast cancer
There are some wearables on the market that consumers may be familiar with, such as the TENS machine for mild pain relief. TENS (which stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) works by sending small electrical pulses through electrodes attached to the body at the site of the pain. You can wear the device under your clothes with the control box tucked into a pocket, and some people find it provides relief for conditions such as period pain or muscle spasms.
As we survey the current technological climate, one thing becomes abundantly clear: machines like this are only tip of the iceberg. But although they undoubtedly have great potential, the industry has quite a way to go before the use of wearable medical devices becomes common practice.

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