Medical wearable devices, like the Apple watch or Fitbit, that monitor the wearer's heart rate and activity have become commonplace now a day, but the use of these technologies could change the medical landscape in years to come. Free use photo
A Handle on your Health: Wearable Medical Devices
Soon we will all be wearing medical devices that are meant to keep us healthy. Many of us have already embraced wearing smart watches or wristbands like the Fitbit or Apple watch. Companies are racing to produce new medical devices that can be incorporated into our everyday life and it’s forecasted to be a trillion dollar market. Are these devices going to make us truly healthier or are they just expensive toys?
By far, the most commonly used wearable medical technology is the smartwatch or wristband. These devices usually connect to your smartphone and an app and can monitor things like your heart rate, oxygen saturation, blood pressure, activity levels like steps you’ve walked or laps you’ve swum or even how well you slept last night. They use a GPS function to monitor distance traveled and can calculate the calories you’ve burned throughout the day too. The app can alert you to when you’ve been idle for too long and need to get up and get active. Currently, we don’t have any scientific data proving these things are making people healthier yet, but I see tremendous potential.
We are in the infancy stage of wearable medical devices. These early days are probably nothing more than just entry level fun. It’s neat to look down and see your heart rate or oxygen level but how much utility is there in it? Soon, though, these devices will actually serve a medical purpose. The Apple watch now offers an EKG function. If your heart goes into an unstable rhythm like Atrial Fibrillation it will alert you — how cool is that? There is work on sensors that would be able to detect abnormalities in your sweat like high or low blood sugar, which would be great for diabetics. Virtually every doctor’s office has to be connected to an electronic medical record these days and soon your medical devices will communicate with it to keep your doctor informed. Obviously, cybersecurity becomes even more important as technology advances to safeguard our health records.
There is an app now for asthmatics that can measure inhaler use and create a map of air quality in real time using data from many users across a region. This way, asthmatics could be warned to stay away from a certain area to reduce their chances of having an asthma attack.
E-textiles are an exciting new technology that puts the sensors in our clothes. They weave sensors into clothes that allow monitoring just like the smartwatches. One company is working on an EKG T-shirt. Clothes will be able to monitor your temperature and soon will be able to warm you up or cool you down. There is a company working on hats that send your favorite music directly into your head without the use of earphones; while that’s not medical it’s still cool. A group at Ohio State University is working on a hat that monitors brain waves in epilepsy patients. There are socks that can monitor a patient’s leg swelling and alert them if too much swelling is detected.
You may remember a few years ago Google came out with Google glasses. The glasses are gone but now Google has partnered with Novartis to develop smart contact lenses. These lenses not only help you see but monitor the fluid secretions around the eye and can alert diabetics to abnormal sugars. I bet we’re not far away from these things becoming little computer screens in our eyes.
There are UV radiation sensors you can stick on your fingernail that will alert you if you’re approaching dangerous levels of sun exposure. There are bras that help detect breast cancer. There is a baby monitor shirt that pregnant women can wear that monitors the baby’s heart continually.
Virtual reality headsets have made their first real appearance starting last year. If you’ve had the chance to play with an Oculus system you know how cool this is. Kids love playing games on them but they’re already being considered for virtual doctor’s offices. Think about it. You will be able to put a VR headset on soon and see your doctor in a virtual reality clinic. We already offer an online clinic that works a lot like Facetime at our clinics but this VR clinic is way cooler. No more waiting in congested waiting rooms to see your doctor. Your smartwatch will send them your vitals and you will interact with your doctor almost like you’re really there except it’s all online. Does your doctor need a urine sample? No problem. You go pee in your toilet and it sends a report to your doctor with all kinds of results. Japan is actually using smart toilets like this already. I know toilets aren’t wearable devices but it was too cool not to mention.
Let's not forget about alert necklaces for the elderly. I grew up watching the “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercials. These are like Onstar for senior citizens. Now they always have the ability to reach for help even when they’re alone. Although, if everyone starts putting Alexa in their homes they can just yell out for 911.
It’s too soon to say which devices will change our health for the better versus just waste our time and money. For now, I’m fully supportive of all these new health gadgets. Over time we will see who the winners and losers are. Remember none of these things will make you healthy. You are responsible for that. But maybe some of these inventions can help us.
Dr. John Turner is a family medicine and emergency medicine doctor with 25 years of experience. He is also the owner of My Primary Care Clinic and My Emergency Room 24/7 here in Hays County. Dr. Turner may be reached at 512-667-6087.