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We may tend to think about wearable technology as being associated with those who are seeking to keep fit or who are looking to check emails when on the move, but such technologies are increasingly playing an important role for researchers and healthcare providers, allowing new diagnostic approaches.
Monitoring and transmitting live data
A range of medical devices have introduced new capabilities, allowing doctors to monitor bodily functions and systems in real time. Monitoring data could also be transmitted via wireless networks to cloud storage, automating the accumulation of vast databanks that could prove invaluable for phase IV clinical trials which involve constantly monitoring the effects of a licensed drug throughout its active use. A variety of tools are also emerging that enable such data to be analysed accurately and efficiently.
Wearable technology allows for two-way communications, this means that doctors and healthcare professionals are able to send patients advice and information, potentially improving the efficacy of prescribed treatments and improving patient comfort. Such solutions also enable healthcare providers to make savings, given that the failure of patients to adhere to medical regimes is a key cause of money being wasted. There are also clear advantages in terms of enhanced rehabilitation for patients.
Moving beyond sports and fitness applications
When wearable devices were first made available, their limited functionality meant that they primarily appealed to people who were looking to monitor their physical activity. The fitness market gave manufacturers a way to establish demand for their products, but it also created the preconception that all wearable devices are aimed at sports users.
Over time, wearables have become more sophisticated, and as technologies have advanced, specialized applications such as remote medical monitoring have become possible. Wearables are now poised to play a key role in the treatment of patients who are suffering from serious conditions, and this technology is bringing about a revolution in the way in which doctors are able to treat their patients.
Basic devices are now able to monitor heart and respiratory rates in addition to monitoring the amount of exercise the wearer takes. More advanced devices can measure biosignals specific to pre-diagnosed conditions, providing an integral role within modern healthcare.
It's evident that wearable technology is offering increased options for medical practitioners and is also capable of providing additional flexibility for patients.
Reducing hospital visits
One of the key advantages offered by wearable technology is the ability to monitor patients without requiring them to physically reside at a hospital or healthcare facility.
Instead, data can be transmitted directly via mobile technologies and wireless devices, enabling medical practitioners to have immediate access to real time data. This allows for rapid analysis too, ensuring that doctors are prepared in case of emergencies.
By avoiding calling patients into hospital except in cases of emergency, the costs associated with providing healthcare are falling, this approach also has a knock-on effect, reducing waiting times for patients who do need to make hospital visits.
Early intervention capabilities
The monitoring capabilities of wearable technology are also enabling medical professionals to identify problems and conditions at a much earlier stage than would previously have been possible. With devices proving to be very effective early warning systems, patients and healthcare professionals are able to potential problems respond much sooner. Such early action often avoids the risk of healthcare issues escalating, and can also reduce the required intensity of treatment.
The ability to take early action should reduce risk levels for many patients, and may also reduce recovery times, providing better outcomes even in the most serious cases. The advantages of early intervention is well established in many situations and it's evident that wearable technology is likely to play an increasingly important role in the early detection of a range of conditions. Wearable technology is already great for monitoring those with heart conditions, but specialized devices are already in development that are tailored to other specific conditions such as type 2 diabetes and iodine deficiencies.
The impact on healthcare professionals
As wearable technology transforms the way in which healthcare is delivered, it's clear that there are significant benefits for professionals. Immediate access to data and the provision of bespoke analysis tools provides significant advantages over traditional testing and the waits associated with sending samples to a lab for analysis.
Through pro-active monitoring, wearables are changing the focus of healthcare from a reactive focus, to a preventative focus. Via the accumulation and analysis of big data, it may one day be possible to tailor preventative health regimes to specific individuals, based on new understandings of behavioural triggers for certain conditions and analysis of their daily routines.
In order to make the most of these technologies however, there is also the need to integrate the analysis of historical health records associated with your genetics. Several big players have already made significant ground in this field, including Ancestry.com who offer a DNA test which combines genetic matches with over thirty million family trees.
Digital interventions take many forms, from an artificial pancreas automatically delivering insulin when required via an insulin pump, to a smartphone app telling you that you need to take 2000 more steps today to stay in shape. How and when digital interventions take place clearly have an effect on their effectiveness, and while it's clear that message based interventions offer the potential to produce improved outcomes for patients, they don't always represent the most appropriate approach.
The most significant challenge faced by message based interventions is the fact that they are easy to ignore or overlook. If devices are to provide effective preventative treatment for specific conditions, then there remains a lot of work to be done to ensure the user engages with, and responds to the intervention.
Another consideration is the fact that technology is rarely faultless, and although many wearable devices are proving to have impressive levels of reliability, there are still factors that can affect their functionality. For example, most message based interventions are delivered via an internet connection or SMS message, yet 20% of the UK currently has poor mobile reception or none at all.