Are we ready for medical wearables?
The wearable revolution is here. Portable and wearable technology such as smartphones and smart watches are changing everything we all thought we knew about technology. Including, it seems, the distinction between equipment designed for practitioners and devices used by consumers. From ultrasound scanners to glucose meters, there’s not a lot that your consumer technology can’t emulate. Here, Neil Oliver, technical marketing manager at Accutronics, explores the trend and looks at the potential consequences.
Your average smartphone now has more processing power than the supercomputers used by NASA circa 1969 when it sent three astronauts to the moon. It's no surprise then that there has been a growing surge in recent years of start-ups specifically developing peripheral devices to monitor intimate details of one's physical condition.
The rise of wearable devices can be attributed to a much larger societal disposition towards the Internet of Things (IoT). Although the IoT, as a concept, has been around for many years, it's only recently started to pick up traction. A maturing ecosystem of mobile operating systems (OSs) such as Android and iOS, as well as an improving cloud computing infrastructure and the widespread availability of cheap wireless sensors means that OEMs in the consumer electronics sector have glimpsed the profitability of the medical technology (MedTech) sector and they want a piece of the pie.
The benefits of wearable and portable medical devices are clear. Wearables make patient data readily accessible and may reduce the number of times we need to visit a doctor and, in doing so, alleviate the burden on our healthcare system. As well as this, it is becoming cheaper to produce wearable medical devices that fulfil the function traditionally limited to large and expensive medical devices in hospitals.
However, while wearable devices may have revolutionised the consumer electronics market, it doesn’t fit too well on the wrist of healthcare. Many industry experts are raising eyebrows at what they believe to be an incompatibility between the two industries.
It’s hard to argue the difference between the two sectors. In the age of globalisation, consumer technology companies often go head to head in a price-based race to the bottom. While they may make higher returns financially, the product itself suffers from a greatly reduced product development life cycle (PDLC).
A typical consumer PDLC is 12 months. It can stretch to 24 months, or be as short as six. Compare this to the ten year PDLC of your standard medical device and you can see why experts are worried.
More worrying is the lifespan of the battery in the device. With 40 years' experience in designing and developing batteries, Accutronics has seen them get smaller in accordance with more compact device designs. This reduction in size unfortunately comes with a reduction in energy density, leading many wearable devices to suffer from inadequate run-time. If your smartphone runs out of charge mid-conversation, it’s frustrating and inconvenient, but if your device runs out while monitoring your health, it can become life threatening.
The wearable revolution certainly has its place. You can’t argue with the consumer benefits and the ease of access it offers is definitely appealing in the medical industry. However, this accessibility comes with a performance trade off. With a bespoke battery solution, you can maximise the potential of your portable device, but even then, wearables are still a long way from full professional integration.