Is Data from Wearable Tech Helpful or Just Adding to the Clutter?

Wearables are getting some major hype recently, especially since the release of Apple’s HealthKit and with the growing popularity of Fitbit. Eventually, the technology will be widely used by providers to receive medical data from patients, helping to promote disease prevention and to improve treatment compliance. Wearables will allow for more frequent collection — and organization — of accurate and objective medical information. The conventional approach of keeping a health journal or reviewing personal medical data solely at office visits will surely fade when patients are able to effortlessly transmit a food log, blood pressure reading, or symptom summary directly to their physician’s electronic health record. However, notice that the above sentences are written in future-tense. In reality, we are many steps away from the successful implementation of wearable devices in healthcare.

Compared to myself, possessing a “realist” skepticism, Sumit Mehra, CTO of Y Media Labs, a company into mobile application development, is much more enthusiastic about the future of mobile data and its promising use in healthcare. He zealously states that “preventing disease is the Holy Grail of modern medicine.” This is very true, but we in medicine are aware that making such statements is akin to announcing that not smoking is a great way to avoid COPD and lung cancer. For a patient, developing motivation and maintaining compliance are the true barriers to living a disease-prevention lifestyle. Will wearables help that aspect of care?

Mehta goes on to say, “Applications, devices and technologies behind the 'quantified-self' movement are exploding in number, precisely because of their power to collect, interpret and communicate the personal health data that professionals so desperately need.” The issue with this statement is the assumption that more data will lead to better outcomes. That might absolutely be true, but as I’ve written in the past, we in healthcare already have a vast amount of data. The problem is organizing it and presenting it to providers in a simple, interpretable fashion, while avoiding the tendency to add more clutter to the EHR screen. That is the true challenge of this upcoming “big data” movement.

Needless to say, there are a few challenges to overcome before wearable technology can be commonplace in the medical field. First, I’m guessing that most of the pioneers of these devices aren’t quite the demographic that would benefit most from their usage. Physically fit young people and those participating in the “quantified-self movement” are essentially the exact opposite of a person with chronic medical conditions. Generally, the patients who need the most help from these devices are mostly older in age and not tech-savvy. Therefore, for such patients to use wearable technology, developers need to make them as simple-to-use as humanly possible. Unfortunately that isn’t the case for the current devices. Accenture conducted a survey which showed that 83% of consumers who purchased smart devices — including wearables — had difficulty using them. This certainly creates some work for user interface (UX) designers. Best of luck to you all. Offering a solution, Terence Eden suggests testing your UX designs on drunk people.

Another challenge for wearable technology is the fact that patients aren’t interested yet. Maybe the devices aren’t fashionable. Alternatively, it is quite possible that wearables may simply be another distraction that prevents the bearer of the device from getting anything done (see Facebook and Twitter). Regardless of the reason, only 15% of patients asked their doctor about integrating health information into their medical care according to Zina Moukheiber of Forbes. The demand just isn’t there yet.

Additionally, there will be major concerns for privacy, access to data, and clinical usefulness, but those topics can be addressed at another time. Despite the set-backs, I do see a promising future for wearable technology, but let’s not get lost in the excitement of having neat, new things. Healthcare is about curing disease and we measure that by observing outcomes after interventions. Wearables have not yet passed such scrutiny. Maybe with time…

William Rusnak, MD's picture

William Rusnak, MD

Medical Information Advisor

William Rusnak, MD (@RusnakMD) is a resident physician in diagnostic radiology, financial investor, writer, and entrepreneur. He writes about topics such as healthcare information technology, data science, biotechnology, and prevention of chronic disease. With his involvement in several emerging healthcare companies, he is actively attempting to bridge the gap between medicine and information technology.

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