They measure deep sleep phases and pulmonary function. They count steps walked and calories burned off – and they remind you to take medication. Wearable devices could shake up the healthcare sector.
Wearable devices, i.e. “portable computer systems,” includes all devices that can be worn on the body – from pacemakers, activity trackers such as fitness bracelets and watches, to smart watches. It is not clear, how many products currently are on the market: according to the German Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation, around 100,000 healthcare apps are available for downloading from app stores, while a study by the German health insurer Techniker Krankenkasse even puts the figure at 400,000.
The global market for wearable devices was around 6.3 billion euros in 2014 and is expected to grow at an annual rate of some 20 percent by 2018, according to the auditing and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). The market research company Gartner states that the number of devices sold worldwide in 2016 was around 275 million.
High acceptance among users
According to the findings of a 2016 survey by Bitkom, the German Association for Information Technology, around one-third of German citizens already use fitness or activity trackers to measure sporting performance or vital signs. The devices have long since ceased to be used simply to display your pulse rate during jogging so that you can gain an overview on your own fitness. More and more people suffering from a chronic disease use the digital aids to improve their quality of life and manage their illness.
Klaus Rupp, Head of Care Management at Techniker Krankenkasse, confirms the enormous potential of the smart helpers: “We’re moving from merely tracking fitness data to measuring our own state of health.” According to the #SmartHealth study conducted by Techniker Krankenkasse, almost one in two 60- to 70-year-olds now uses a smartphone. This target group can imagine not only using it to document the calories they burn off or number of steps they walk, but also their blood sugar, their liquid intake and their blood pressure.
Monitoring diseases with wearable devices
In future, wearable technologies might not only be worn as a wrist watch, fitness watch or smart watch, but also sewn into clothing such as T-shirts or socks or attached directly to the skin as a band-aid. The potential of the wearable devices soon becomes clear when you look at cardiovascular diseases, which according to the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research are the most frequent cause of death in industrialized nations. Especially in regions with a shortage of doctors, it is often difficult to check patients’ vital parameters regularly, for example to prevent strokes. Wearable devices would make it possible to monitor biological indicators such as cardiac rhythm, respiratory rate, thoracic tissue composition and physical activity and therefore improve people’s state of health.
According to Bitkom, some 75 percent of Germans would be willing to send data on their vital signs to their doctor in the event of illness. The figure among persons suffering from a chronic disease is even 93 percent. However, persons who measure their own vital signs have not exactly been welcomed with open arms by health professionals to date. “No doctor would prescribe one of these gadgets so that patients can measure their own data”, states Tobias Neisecke, a health professional and digitization expert from Berlin. “They’re consumer products that companies have developed to sell hardware.” Neisecke is a doctor, blogger and works in the field of digital health at the Brandenburg Economic Development Board – hence, not the sort of person you would think would reject digital technology. Although the sensors in the devices keep on improving, they are not made for collecting valid data, states Neisecke.
Certification in accordance with the Medical Devices Ordinance
Health professionals can rely on the values measured by wearable technology only if such devices are awarded a seal of approval indicating they are medical products. However, such certification is time-consuming and expensive. Of the 10,000 medical apps available in the U.S., just 100 have been approved by the responsible public agency – i.e. one percent of them.
Apart from the data’s validity, doctors in Germany are worried about how the data collected is protected. “Consumers must be aware that the data is filed and stored somewhere”, says Roland Stahl, spokesperson of the German Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians. “The trend for wearables shows that many people are apparently willing to disclose data more or less without any second thoughts.”
Data privacy is a weakness
This worry is not completely unfounded, as evidenced by a survey of data privacy professionals in the fall of 2016. They tested 16 devices and apps from different manufacturers that cater for some 70 percent of the German market. Their conclusion: users have no control of “who else has their data” and for how long it is stored. Moreover, the companies could not provide proof that data for using the devices and apps is only used in anonymized form for promotional purposes, states Thomas Kranig, Bavaria’s Commissioner for Data Protection. The data privacy professionals did not want to reveal precisely which products they tested. They wanted to persuade the companies to make changes instead.
However, there are also already positive approaches that are exemplary when it comes to technology, data privacy and data security. The health insurer Central Krankenversicherung in Cologne uses the possibilities offered by mobile technology for healthcare. It is equipping diabetes patients with smartphones and blood glucose meters. They record all disease-related data and send it directly to coaches who provide advice on the patients’ diet and activities. Particularly for type 2 diabetics, lifestyle changes to adapt to the disease can provide fundamental improvements. More exercise and a diabetic diet alone can significantly reduce incidents of complications, or even prevent them completely. The health program is thus a very simple way of avoiding costs of treatment and reduces the risk of complications.