Technology for healthcare - Part I: How wearable trackers are driving healthier living
14 November 2019
Technology is infiltrating virtually every aspect of modern living, with tech firms launching ever ambitious solutions to make peoples’ lives easier.
The world of fitness and health is one of the most progressive markets when looking at tech implementation and developments, in fact representing a prime example of a sector that’s been flooded with wearable tech solutions over the last few years.
A recent study identified 423 devices from 132 brands, aimed at supporting physical wellbeing and, increasingly, mindfulness and mental wellness. Are these innovations really improving health for individuals, and what does the future have in store?
Wearable devices and physical health
Wearable health trackers have developed significantly in recent years. The latest solutions have moved beyond tracking steps and distance travelled and are starting to collect data on metrics such as body movement, quality of sleep, calories burned and heart rate. Users are presented with dynamic personal dashboards allowing them to keep minute-by-minute tabs on how they are performing throughout the day. Body data collection and analysis is automated, providing motivational metrics such as fitness levels that encourage users to reach their next stage of health and personal goals.
How a tracker affects health depends on a people’s engagement with their device, and whether they are motivated to be more active or make other lifestyle changes. A study published in 2018 found that 35.5% of the sample owned a fitness tracker, but only 19.6% used their device indicating that, like a gym membership, there is a ‘fad’ element to tracker ownership.
However, the future of wearable devices looks fascinating: developers are creating cutting-edge solutions able to provide more insightful and actionable data that will encourage engagement and improve user experience. Measuring blood pressure is now possible, for example, and trackers with medical grade heart monitors appear to be just around the corner. In addition, the ability to accurately monitor glucose levels in real time looks close too, offering significant benefits for diabetes sufferers to track their personal metrics in real time.
Mental health tracking and wellbeing tools
Mental wellness is firmly in the sights of wearable tech developers as they look to expand the variety and reach of devices. Increased physical exercise has proven to naturally have a positive impact on mental health, but devices are beginning to specifically target mental health indicators such as sleeping patterns and related biophysical indicators including blood pressure, skin temperature, variations in heart rate and breathing.
Through the collection and analysis of data, wearables offer behavioural suggestions, such as breathing exercises or guided meditations. For example, the Apple Watch Breathe app to Spire Stone devices, which claim to monitor breathing for signs of stress and encourages users to become calmer.
It’s early days for wearable tech specifically focussed on mental health, but research certainly backs up the more general notion of smartwatches improving mental health. A study by research firm Mintel found that some 55% of UK consumers who use the devices believe their mental health has benefitted, with the figure rising to 61% of 16 to 34-year-olds.
Fitness and health tracking: an expanding global picture
At a macro level, we are progressing rapidly into the world of connected health, the iOT and big data. The global fitness tracker market is forecast to reach $59 billion by 2023 from $21 billion in 2017, with a compound annual growth rate of 18.9% during this period. Add other data sources into the mix, with huge amounts of structured data becoming available, which means there is data that can be mined to develop new medical insights for use across the healthcare industry, insurers and employers alike.
Regionally, a recent report has found that smartwatches are expected to dominate tracker sales, with a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 20.3% from 2017 to 2023. North America will register a CAGR of 18.9% in terms of value with Asia-Pacific projected to grow exponentially throughout 2023, at a CAGR of 21.2% in terms of value. India too represents a growing market, with an expected CAGR of 15.5% in value terms over this period.
Healthcare and digital transformation
A raft of technology is being developed to encourage us to live healthily, either through increased physical activity, better-eating habits or taking steps to reduce stress. Recent advancements have rapidly changed the health landscape, and we have seen innovation breaking new barriers in mental health measurement and support. The tech journey may have only just begun, however, Deloitte (2019) confirmed that digital health care innovations will keep emerging and escalating, in view of increasing patient-centred care and ‘smart health’ approaches.
Will the next few years reveal that the future of healthcare is interlinked with digital and virtual reality, to allow individuals to seize even greater control of their own health and wellbeing?