Comment: Wearables - The next era for healthcare

In this article Steve Johnson, head of UK and Ireland at Extreme Networks, discusses how wearable technology will revolutionise the healthcare sector

Steve Johnson, head of UK and Ireland at Extreme Networks

The sustained existence of human life has been driven largely by our natural instinct to constantly strive for self-improvement. This has led to countless advances in healthcare, and thanks to this the average global life expectancy has increased from 48 years in 1955 to 65 in 1995 over the past six decades. This is expected to reach 73 years by 2025 according to The World Health Organization.

When you consider that Alexander Fleming only discovered penicillin less than 100 years ago, it really is remarkable how far the healthcare industry has come along. However, in order for the industry to continue making progress, it’s important to look ahead to what external trends will influence the industry and prepare to take advantage of the opportunities they could offer sooner rather than later.

Wearable technology, which has evolved from the modest pedometer to the recently-launched Apple Watch, presents huge potential for the healthcare sector. Not only are these devices becoming smarter and more sophisticated with each new model, but uptake has been massive as increasing numbers of consumers are seeing the benefits of monitoring their health daily while doing everything else they would usually do on a mobile device.

According to Juniper Research, shipments of wearable technology will reach 170 million per year by 2018, which is clear evidence that the adoption of these devices among individuals will increase, in turn increasing the amount of valuable data available to their GPs.

As the popularity of wearables continues to grow, and the healthcare sector starts to integrate these devices into daily practice, there will need to be consideration for how the network infrastructure will be adapted to best support this. 

Connected information

Healthcare information has traditionally been extremely siloed. No matter which country you reside, finding ways to integrate, aggregate and analyse disparate segments of healthcare data is difficult, and expensive. Yet this information is valuable and needed for operations and consultations, in every arm of the healthcare system.

Wearable technology, which has evolved from the modest pedometer to the recently-launched Apple Watch, presents huge potential for the healthcare sector

In order to successfully deploy wearable technology in healthcare, the industry must develop a network that provides adequate support for the wealth of information being brought in from various devices, while providing a way to access this information for the doctor or surgeon.

This is not so dissimilar to the networks already created by third-party companies, such as Nike’s Nike+ network that allows you to view your personal data-captured by your wearable and compare it with others on the network. This ‘medical database’ comprising of a much-broader population base can collate more-meaningful data comparisons and analysis and distil useful information. This information in conjunction with all health information can expand the analysing group to include differing geographies or specific diagnoses, compiling a more-complete picture of group health.

The possibilities for health professionals are enormous. For instance, patient data entered into one point can be immediately available at another, revealing allergies, health histories, and medication use. Combined with information collected through wearables, providers will have more-complete and essentially real-time data to treat and manage the health of individual patients, as well as patient population diagnoses that can be made quickly and accurately to save time and money.

Such an approach can be used nationally and internationally. One such scheme, implemented under Obama’s Big Data Research and Development Initiative, has brought together five years’ worth of US public data on cardiovascular disease and health risks and combined it with National Health Services data from England, Scotland and Wales.

Building a community

The saying, ‘there is strength in numbers’ has never been more apt when evaluating the use of wearables in a community health scenario, for example, when patients that are trying to lose weight or lower cholesterol together. By bringing together people with a common health interest, such as obesity or diabetes, wearables can build engagement and at the same time compile information.

Wearable technology is improving and advancing at a phenomenal rate and encroaching into new territories that take them away from the trackside and into the hands of the medical world

With the help of peers and the input from medical professionals, groups of at-risk individuals can now have a new, supportive method to reach medical goals – helping to improve the overall success rate with continuous support.

With information networked and communities built, participation in wearable groups can be driven by gamifying healthcare and fitness apps. Another hot trend for 2015, many of us already compete with friends on such platforms as Nike+ or Strava to run the most miles a week but being part of a health group with the same condition and desire to remain competitive will produce significant health benefits and give patients the intrinsic value of a 'win' at the end of the programme. Health clubs or gyms might also offer incentives to members willing to sign up for designated wearable health programmes and join in the 'game'.

Improving the patient pathway

Wearables are also making their way into the medical world. In the near future, it is possible that chips will be embedded inside patient information bracelets so that doctors can receive up-to the minute patient information and help better locate their patients during the patient pathway journey.

For example, AccuPebble is a wearable, wireless device, the approximate size of a pound coin, which sticks onto a person’s neck or chest to detect sounds emanating from the heart and respiratory system. It uses advanced algorithms to sift through a range of sounds to determine only the ones that may indicate deteriorating health or illness in patients. Such a wearable could help the doctor fast track the patient through the pathway if they are in distress more quickly, helping to save their life.

By creating a healthcare community through wearables, hospitals that are cash-strapped will be able to manage their operations at a smarter level, but only if the data that is collected is correctly analysed and understood

Based on their research and development work over the past five years, the Imperial team believes that AcuPebble could be used in a range of clinical settings including as a diagnostic tool, a health monitor and as an early warning device. The hope is that the sensor will collect data in real-time and transmit this information to an application that could be downloaded onto any smart device, so that doctors can monitor their patients anywhere in the world.

The future looks bright

Wearable technology is improving and advancing at a phenomenal rate and encroaching into new territories that take them away from the trackside and into the hands of the medical world. As they become more advanced, and become further engrained into our healthcare system we will, at the same rate see their positive effects.

There can be no doubt that advancement in medical technology brings with it many benefits and the potential to save hundreds or even thousands of lives. For example, in the treatment of cardiovascular disease, the use of coronary stents, artificial tubes used in cases of coronary heart disease to keep the arteries open, has halved the number of those dying from heart attacks or suffering heart failure. However, what is being proposed here is not only for the benefit of people suffering from one particular disease but could improve the health of an entire nation.

As the popularity of wearables continues to grow, and the healthcare sector starts to integrate these devices into daily practice, there will need to be consideration for how the network infrastructure will be adapted to best support this

Imagine, for the first time, people will not only be able to realise their health goals, but also supply the information doctors need to help them further. The understanding of the data collated will be imperative and this is where the network will be vital. Through network application data analysis, healthcare organisations can improve operational inefficiencies and develop more-effective and more-personalised approaches to care, while lowering the overall cost.

By creating a healthcare community through wearables, hospitals that are cash-strapped will be able to manage their operations at a smarter level, but only if the data that is collected is correctly analysed and understood. 

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