How wearable tech is improving patient outcomes

15th October 2019
Joe Bush

Technology is revolutionising the healthcare sector, integral to which has been the advances made in the wearables market. Christian Hebenstreit, EMEA SVP & GM, Medidata Solutions explains more.

It is an incredible time to be involved in the life sciences industry. The transformation we are witnessing is revolutionary to such a degree that we only have to look back ten to 15 years to see a vastly different landscape. But, for all the changes and progress made - in understanding disease, R&D and the increased accessibility of medicine - one of the most game-changing developments over the past few years has been the increased focus on personalised medicine.

This has been supported by wearable technology, mobile health and digital health apps. The impact of wearables on the global healthcare industry cannot be understated. Wearables have become commonplace and part of the cultural landscape - and they have opened up opportunities for medical professionals like never before.

Taking control of your health

While not everyone has a device built specifically to track movements, like a FitBit for example, nearly all of us have monitoring software built into our smartphones. In that sense, anybody who owns a smartphone is either knowingly or unknowingly tracking aspects of their health regime on an ongoing basis. We are seeing technological advancements occur at a similar rate to consumer penetration, and it is this combination of market elements that is creating such exponential growth and opportunity.

Devices that initially just counted our steps can now track infinitely more – your activities, heart rate, hours and quality sleep – all of which happen automatically and which can provide instantaneous data to consumers via their wrists or from their pockets. You can even be alerted when you haven’t fulfilled your suggested daily quota of movement or steps. Tracking your health data was less readily available a couple of years ago.

Measuring your heart rate, for example, was only possible if you were willing to wear a chest strap. That’s not the case today. All these developments are not only enabling, but really encouraging, consumers to take control of their own health. People are now able to proactively know their numbers and, while this doesn’t necessarily prompt positive change in itself, it does empower individuals to be more self-aware and take an increasingly active role in their daily health choices. Individuals are taking charge of their health for the first time and the knock-on impact on global health is, not surprisingly, huge.

Consumerisation of healthcare 

According to the research firm eMarketer, the number of people using smart wearables is expected to rise by nine percent globally in 2020, but among the ageing population (people aged 55 and older) it will jump more than 15%.

This is because more and more features are being added to wearables and smartphones specifically designed to appeal to older generations. Apple, for example, added a fall detection app and an electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring function to the Apple Watch Series 4 and a study conducted by Fortune magazine last year found that health monitoring features such as the ECG app have massive appeal to older people.

These innovations in isolation might be seen as small steps but the ripple effect is remarkable. It has been reported that wearable devices have the potential to significantly reduce the $2tn annual cost of chronic disease. This is obviously great news for multiple reasons, but especially when you consider the scarcity of hospital resources and the fact that nurses are already stretched, trying to maintain regular rounds every four to eight hours. Where patients have a more acute condition that requires frequent monitoring, nurses aren’t always available, which may result in a patient’s condition worsening.

Healthcare from home

This is where wearable technology is delivering its most advantageous benefits. For patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, making the decision to invest in a wearable device is often the first step in playing an active role in their health, which has clear benefits and can have an immediate impact. But it also means diagnosis, guidance and even treatment can be administered remotely, which has a huge impact on patients that have difficulty in travelling to hospital, either through ill-health, distance or other commitments.

In turn, this also reduces the pressure of ongoing management on care providers. Wearable technology has opened a new and convenient way for patients to stay connected with their physician while also providing physicians with easy and fast access to their patients, as well as their patients’ data, from remote locations. Doctor visits can now be done virtually, while the nurses who traditionally had to run routine checks on individual patients one by one can now oversee hundreds of people on a single dashboard.

Trial without error

Wearables have created such a reliable remote dialogue that it was only a matter of time before it became an effective way to conduct and/or support clinical trials. Clinical trials are now more accurate, more efficient and more patient-friendly than ever before. While traditional site-based studies make use of wearable technology, the fact that accurate patient data can be tracked and recorded remotely means that the physical, geographical and temporal barriers that can interfere with launching a study and carrying it to completion are eliminated.

Patients and study groups can now access care without leaving their homes and are being incorporated into the virtual clinical trial model as a result. Locations that are difficult to access are now suddenly easily accessible, while niche demographic groups that may have previously been impossible to enrol in studies are now much closer. The democratisation of clinical trials in this way means drug development and bringing products to market can be done quicker and more reliably than ever before in medical history.

Social healthcare 

We are only at the start of this new development and we have yet to see how much more of an impact wearables can have. While wearables allow the individual to have access to their own health data, there’s also a big social element to consider that didn’t exist a decade ago. We’re seeing a great deal of activity stemming directly from the social-sharing functionalities of wearable devices. This is creating meaningful interactions within the healthcare community and allows patients to connect with their care teams – practitioners, nurses, healthcare coaches – to help them manage their conditions on a real-time, individual basis.

This area has a tremendous opportunity for further growth, especially when we start to explore electronic medical and health records. An increased focus on data portability and interoperability, and how data is moved and shared, will help the healthcare industry deliver more effective and efficient solutions and outcomes for patients.

Data security and privacy will always be an important element as these technological developments continue, and the ability to keep individuals’ data is safe and secure has improved massively in the last decade. There are increasingly more regulations in place to support this as we move towards a more tech-centric world.

Patient-centric medicine

We are seeing massive improvements in two-way clinician to patient communication because of the easy accessibility to real-time personalised data. This is leading to a more patient-centric form of medicine and will be the next major area of growth fuelled by wearables. Today, the life sciences industry has an opportunity to truly understand the patient’s perspective and experience the patient’s journey, enabling companies and healthcare professionals to identify where they can make improvements. That’s hugely exciting and lends itself to immense opportunity.

Patients are becoming more comfortable with their stories and sharing them in a way that’s actionable because they want to help improve processes and outcomes for the next generation of patients. Patients are collaborating with the life sciences industry in a completely new way, which is only going to bring about better patient experiences and allow for further innovation. In parallel, companies in the healthcare sector are partnering with health plans and working directly with employers, health systems and insurance companies, to improve every aspect of a patient’s personalised journey.

The next evolution

There is no doubt that wearable technology is laying the foundation for our future health. Of course, it is not a silver bullet solution and we need to continue the progress in R&D, drug development, patient care and every other aspect of medicine, but the impact of wearables goes way beyond just being a slick piece of technology.

Looking at where we are today and what we are able to do when it comes to digital or virtual fashion - it’s extremely advanced compared to just a few years ago. This is bringing new and rapidly evolving opportunities for greater efficiencies across the life sciences industry. From creating new datasets around therapy areas to simply looking for trends in a bigger or more diverse population, we have the ability, data and technology, as well as the collective ambition, to do so. If you wonder whether wearable technology has made a difference in the healthcare sector, you can bet it has. And you can be assured you’ll see more.

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