The rise of wearable healthcare devices & detailed monitors

Dr Andrew Feeney, IEEE member & lecturer in Ultrasonics at the University of Glasgow, explores wearable devices & detailed monitors in healthcare

The pandemic was highly disruptive to healthcare beyond coronavirus, where usual in-person access to medical professionals was severely restricted. This has reignited the discussion on how best to administer treatments and monitor patient outcomes in societies which are both ageing and growing in population, putting significant strains on health services.

A major outcome of the pandemic has been a renewed focus on improving healthcare accessibility, including for those whom it is not straightforward to receive regular in-person support, or those for whom regular remote monitoring would be a more effective outcome for both the patient and the healthcare professional.

Telemedicine has been growing in popularity, in part enabled by the rapid advances in wearable technologies. It is now possible to remotely monitor a wide range of medical conditions associated with a single patient in real-time, allowing rapid and tailored treatments and outcomes where relevant. There is clear evidence that the pandemic has accelerated the development and uptake of wearable devices. Recent projections of the global market indicate the potential for wearable technologies, and those for monitoring, may exceed US$30bn by 2026, a sharp rise from the US$16bn market value reported in 2021. Advanced wearable devices for healthcare monitoring generate significant quantities of data, ensuring the potential for rapid responses to future crises, where particularly vulnerable patients with severe health conditions will continue to have access to the best quality care possible.

 

Future application of wearable devices within healthcare

To summarise the potential trajectory of wearable devices for healthcare applications, a few key challenges should be clarified. These include ensuring private, personal data is secure, that significant quantities of data can be rapidly processed and that the data is reliable and of value to both the patient and clinician.

In general, a wide variety of medical and physiological conditions can now be remotely monitored.

Considering the challenges specified above, efforts will likely be directed towards ensuring wearable devices are accessible for all patients, straightforward and intuitive to operate, with no uncertainty regarding the safety of the patient and the protection of personal, confidential information. It has been reported that the transition of current wearable devices towards those which are more tailored to the patient will help define the future landscape. Specific technological developments, such as improvements in battery life, communication speeds and data processing capabilities, are constantly progressing. With these advances, the number of conditions which can be remotely monitored with reliability will continue to grow.

‘Big data’ and proactive healthcare

In tackling some of the key challenges as highlighted above, big data becomes an important concept.

Processing vast quantities of information at frequent intervals requires additional capabilities embedded into healthcare services. Artificial intelligence is already utilised to ensure data confidentiality and track a range of conditions using machine learning. In essence, useful data is collected and patterns recognised, thus building a picture of a patient’s health with potential outcomes tracked. Such big data strategies, and the increasing uptake in wearable technologies, are strongly indicative of a general move away from reactive healthcare towards that which is proactive. This means patients have a role in their own healthcare outcomes, with greater focus on preventative measures.

Using artificial intelligence strategies combined with wearable devices, it will be possible to monitor multiple health indicators simultaneously, and even deliver certain procedures such as drug delivery.

Recently, nanoparticle systems for drug delivery have been reported, which are capable of administering drugs to targeted locations within the body.


Different types of detailed monitoring in healthcare

There is a wide array of monitoring technologies now available, where some of the major advances are summarised here. One key challenge is to widen access to these technologies, but another is to ensure that the information provided is reliable. For example, a particular symptom might be associated with a range of medical conditions, and therefore the monitoring process must be suitably equipped to account for this.

Blood pressure is a common condition which can be remotely monitored, for example via device on the wrist, with several devices in use today. 

However, there remain concerns regarding their usefulness and it is evident that further patient-oriented development is required. Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) is also possible via a device which can be attached to the arm, where results can be communicated via a mobile app. This mode of monitoring is rapid and allows treatment or management of a condition which is highly tailored to a patient. The health of both the heart and lung can be remotely monitored via technologies including implanted sensors or in some cases more simply through communications with a patient to indicate variations in symptoms which cause concern.

Combinations of these monitoring technologies have also been successfully applied for remote maternity monitoring and it is now possible to monitor specific mental health conditions, including stress and depression, via critical markers including neural response, breathing and heart rates and physical activity level. Given the unpredictability and severity of many of the conditions cited here, remote detailed monitoring is vital to ensure the health and well-being of society in general.


Dr Andrew Feeney, IEEE member & lecturer in Ultrasonics at the University of Glasgow

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