Going Beyond Mere Fitness Tracking: Challenges and Opportunities

Bohdan Tarlupa
Business development manager at ELEKS

According to Juniper, fitness and activity trackers are dominating the wearables segment and will boss around at least until 2018. And it’s not surprising, since the health and fitness sector has been the first to offer a range of wearable devices at a good variety of prices and functionality already in early 2005 when Nike and Sony entered the market. The popularity of this segment is also dictated by very intuitive use cases: if you are a jogger or a diehard gym bunny, you would probably want to have your pulse and heart rate measured and check how many calories you have burnt. While it may still seem to be useful to track your activities, is it something that makes your life that much better?

It’s a shame though that more and more companies seem to be interested in helping sporties tone and sculpt their bodies, while the areas that could benefit most from this technology don’t appear to be getting appropriate attention. What about wearables for children and people with health problems?

Wearables for Children

As a father-to-be, I started thinking if wearable technology has something in store for my baby. Are there ways it can help my child or perhaps myself become a better parent? Imagine your baby is crying. Of course it’s not in Received Pronunciation or any other language you speak, so it’s quite challenging at times to tell what’s wrong with the child. Is your baby crying because the nappy needs changing? Well, that’s quite easy to smell tell. But what if she’s too cold or too hot, tired, hungry, wants to be bundled, is in pain because of gas or perhaps is just cranky? Or a thousand more reasons… Finally, first baby steps are made in producing devices that help parents interpret their baby’s bawling. Yay, it’s like Google Translate for babies!

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We are so hyped about our fitbit, FuelBand or Jawbone Up because they track our activity even when we’re sleeping and give us access to stats where we can see real time progress. What if your baby had one? Now it does. Look at this great product called Sproutling. Not only can you now quickly learn if your baby is sleeping soundly, but “Wet nappy alert” or “Temperature alert” are now reality.

From GPS trackers for your child, smart scales, breast milk analyzers, smart baths to even smart nappies, the amount of wearables and IoT devices for children is increasing each month. But what’s even more interesting is that some of the baby devices are starting to bridge the gap between consumer products and medical devices.

Wearables for People with Health Problems

According to the PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Health Research Initiative (HRI) research, less than half of people who own a wearable use it on a daily basis. Well that’s awkward. Then do I really need a fancy Fitness Tracking gadget if I barely use it at all? For the majority it’s just a new trendy toy that will be sent down the drain after people get bored.

Maybe it’s wiser to gear gadgets that can record our heart rate, calories burnt and steps taken towards people that truly need proper health monitoring. People with illnesses like emphysema, diabetes or congestive heart failure will not suddenly decide to ditch the gadget after it becomes less trendy. The reason is simple: it helps them stay out of the hospital, monitors their health and helps effectively take preventive measures. It is expected that catching serious conditions like asthma and cardiac irregularity before we even know anything could go wrong will soon be entirely possible.

Technology can help patients and doctors save valuable time between first symptoms and exacerbation. Can you imagine how many hospital beds it will save for those who really need them? This will entirely change how people with health issues can communicate with their healthcare providers and the healthcare system as a whole.

While all this looks fascinating, we still need to overcome several hurdles before we can harness the true power of wearables.

Big Data, No Analysis

The main challenge that is now plaguing fitness trackers as the most mature wearable segment is the fact that while they provide a lot of data, we are not capable of doing much with it. Don’t get me wrong, we have the capabilities, but as scientists suddenly received access to such an abundance of biometric data, they are struggling to keep up with it.

Data from wearables has to evolve from knowledge to insight. Sure it’s good to know how many steps you took, or how many calories you burnt, but it is a totally different ball game when you can, say, calculate your basal metabolic rate. We are slowly getting there, though. For example, the researchers from the Human Locomotome Project discovered how analyzing activity logs on fitness tracking gadgets can help predict the potential development of Parkinson’s disease.

Besides, insights may be considered as a matter within the field of medical diagnostics which is regulated by the law, and this could be the reason why device manufacturers are keeping away from it. At least for now.

From Fitness Tracking Gadgets to Regulated Medical Devices

To show the full potential, wearables need to be let into a completely different league: from consumer electronics devices to regulated medical devices. Still, in some governments the regulatory frameworks to cover such devices either don’t exist or are too cumbersome to properly react to the advancements. It is high time for regulators, developers and healthcare providers to fully understand the potential of new technologies. Given the rapid innovations in tech and with the emergence of “certified” wearable medical devices, it will be possible to not only significantly improve our wellness but also extend our lifespan.

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Accuracy of Data

Another challenge for adopting wearables in healthcare is the reliability of data we are getting from the devices. Doctors and physicians need devices that can provide accurate and consistently reliable data, while the majority of wearable manufacturers appear to care mostly about the nifty and stylish look of their products. It has been proven that calorie measurements are rough estimates at best and most heart-rate monitors aren’t very accurate unless they’re worn against the chest.

Sometimes, trackers can’t even tell different types of activities apart. Some devices may log the same level of activity when you play tennis on Wii while chilling out on a sofa or pushing a stroller uphill. Not all bio sensors are good enough to provide accurate data that can be properly used in healthcare just yet.

Properly Connected Devices

Wearables could also help us better interact with public utility services, government services or healthcare. Wouldn’t it be great if wearables were connected to an electronic medical record or a patient management system and I could show real-time data about my child to a pediatrician?

While traditionally diagnostics is based on a patient’s medical records and symptoms, wearables could offer an additional source of constant real-time information to help healthcare providers diagnose their patients by quickly highlighting anomalies and flagging them.

The Ethics

Although the technical problems around wearables regulations may be solved quite soon, we have yet another obstacle to overcome. It’s us, humans and our attitude. Are we ready to let wearables in to be our doctors? Are we happy to put wires (or wearables) on our babies or ourselves? People don’t feel comfortable sharing their medical records with friends and families, let alone strangers and tech companies. Still, with proper means of data security and tangible benefits gained, I think we will become more open-minded.

Resume

The wearables industry is mature enough to surely but steadily transition from fitness to healthcare. But once the devices become truly connected, they will bring immense volumes of data with valuable insights straight to doctors.

Despite the fact that similar sensors may be used to monitor the same vital signs as currently used in fitness trackers, the industry poses a whole lot of new requirements. The data has to be much more accurate, it has to be private and secure and well integrated with the healthcare systems. Regulatory obstacles and the question of ethics should also be accounted for. The pioneers capable to properly hit the healthcare market will also benefit a lot, as, compared to fitness trackers, healthcare is where the real money is.

So, is it time to transition from fitness and start a whole new game making 2015 the year of healthcare or it is going to take a long time before we see any real advancements here?

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