Many people reading this article will have a Fitbit, assiduously clocking up their 10,000 steps a day. Others will have taken it further, maybe checking their heart rate on an Apple watch, logging their workouts and maybe even going so far as using the watch’s ECG (electrocardiogram) functions.
Maybe when you have finished your workout you pop a pulse oximeter on your finger, checking your blood oxygen level…
These are all medical checks that we can perform at home using wearable technology – and they are medical checks that wouldn’t have been imaginable ten years ago. So what does the future hold for wearable tech? Could we, in effect, become our own doctors?
The growth in the wearable tech market – by 2024 the market just for wearable devices to monitor vital signs is expected to reach $1bn (£730m) – will be driven by several factors. Populations are getting older, research and development is improving all the time, 5G is going to lead to improved connectivity, and, sadly, the current pandemic has made everyone far more aware of their own health.
So what will we see? ‘Worn’ tech devices such as watches will continue. But wearable tech will mean exactly that, technology becoming part of your clothes so it is less intrusive. We’ll see sensors, biomechanical and motion, placed at specific parts of the body to communicate with an overall Body Area Network system. And the future will bring ‘implantables,’ including everything from intelligent pacemakers to devices that monitor key wellness levels such as blood sugar.
These devices will communicate with both the wearer and with their medical practitioner. The information the wearer receives will, in many cases, allow him or her to take immediate action. The medical practitioner will receive vital information, be alerted to key triggers – and will also save time, with the wearable tech gathering much of the key information on a patient’s health.
“The age of wellness wearables is definitely here,” said one clinical director. “Whether it is middle ear devices that monitor your heart rate, the wearable on your wrist that tells you how you are sleeping, or an ECG monitor around your chest – there are so many technology developments that enhance the care doctors can provide.”
There is, though, one potential downside. None of what I’ve described will be free – and some of the most sophisticated wearable tech will be very expensive. Could wearable tech widen the health divide between rich and poor? The answer seems obvious – and may well present medical professionals and policymakers with plenty of potential headaches.