May 12, 2016

With next-gen wearable tech, doctors gain tools to deliver more intensive care

Wearable technology could improve patients’ quality of life and help medical professionals to provide more tailored care. Associate Professor Vijay Sivaraman discusses the potential benefits, and why widespread adoption could be five years away.

In the future, wearable technology, or ‘wearables’, could be integral to medical care.

“Wearables have the potential to monitor patients on a continuous basis while they carry on with their normal daily activities,” says Vijay Sivaraman, Associate Professor in Telecommunications at the University of New South Wales. “This could help people with chronic diseases such as diabetes to manage their illness more effectively.”

Constant monitoring could mean fewer visits to the doctor’s surgery. And, by reducing the number of hospital admissions and the length of each stay, wearables could ease growing pressure on the healthcare budget.

“Healthcare providers also stand to benefit,” Sivaraman continues. “Doctors could spend less time on routine checks and procedures and they would have access to information that could lead to more tailored care. For example, good blood glucose control plays a vital role in helping diabetics to avoid complications but, as levels can fluctuate significantly, infrequent check-ups can’t paint an accurate picture. Continuous readings from a wearable device could help doctors to develop the most appropriate management strategy.”

Healthy motivation

A decade ago, medical devices were purely functional. Today, many are regarded as stylish accessories.

“People of all ages are becoming more comfortable with the idea of wearing technology,” says Sivaraman.

Wearables are also credited with helping people to change their behaviour.

“At the moment the evidence is mainly anecdotal, but I believe this will soon be supported by research,” he continues. “People who want to improve their health often find it easier to stay on track when they’re getting feedback on things like the number of steps they’ve taken and their heart rate. These devices even congratulate you when you reach your goal, which acts as a reward. And, as you can share your results on social networks, groups of friends can encourage each other.”

Some private health funds are already helping their members to leverage the benefits. For example, those who sign up for MLC’s new wellness program, MLC On Track, wear a smartwatch to help them monitor their health and lifestyle. When they achieve a target wellness score, they’re rewarded with a reduced insurance premium.

From recreational to medical

Currently, 90 per cent of the wearables on the market are for recreational use.

“Very little of the data that’s being collected is going into the healthcare system,” says Sivaraman. “Personally, I think there needs to be a better tie-up between medical and recreational devices – but there are problems with the reliability and security of the data that need to be resolved first. This is the focus of some of my research.”

Most manufacturers of medically approved devices are now encrypting their data, but the metadata is far less likely to be secure.

“As part of our research we took readings using a medically-approved blood pressure monitor,” says Sivaraman. “We uploaded the data to a provider’s website and, simply by changing the date, we were able to make it look as though it had been collected the previous day. This is just one example of inadequate security – and you can’t expect medical professionals to take wearables seriously until they can trust the information they’re receiving. They need to be certain that the time stamp on the data is correct, that the readings are accurate, and the information has come from the patient rather than someone who borrowed the device.”

Sivaraman has no doubt wearables will play a crucial role in the health sector, but he predicts it will be at least five years before they are widely adopted.

“There’s still a fair bit of work to be done on the devices themselves and mechanisms for securing them and also on how the data is analysed,” he says. “No doctor has time to work through masses of raw data, and most of it wouldn’t even be of value. We need to ensure that practitioners are alerted to information that does have value – the trends and inconsistencies that suggest something is wrong and that they may need to take action.”

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