Are wearables ready for prime-time in healthcare and pharma?

We are currently at the peak of the Gartner hype cycle with wearable devices. Most wearables are focused on tracking five areas: Breathing, Gait/Posture, Temperature, Heart-Rate, and Movement. From there, wearables tend to split into three different functional categories monitoring/compliance, general wellness, and point solutions / diagnostic tools for particular conditions. For example breath trackers can be used to either analyze breathing and reduce stress (spire.io), used to measure contents in your breath to measure your metabolism (breezing.com), or be used to measure fluid in your lungs for patients that have recently experienced heart failure (http://sensible-medical.com/).

While this technology has come a long way in a short amount of time we still need a few technological improvements. A major issue impacting wearables is the fact that many devices and companies are making promises about product capabilities where the technology just doesn’t exist yet (for example devices that claim to be able to measure caloric intake). These marketing exercises by startups that make it into the main stream media inevitably hurt the adoption of the devices because users feel the devices do not deliver as advertised and stop using them (they never live up to the hype). In order to change this a few things need to happen. First and foremost, sensors, wifi/cellular chips, and algorithms need to be significantly improved. Currently sensors that can collect things like blood sugar levels are too large or invasive to be incorporated into a wearable device. Additionally the current algorithms are relatively limited in their ability to correlate various activities to results and outcomes. Finally the inputs and other connected devices need to be improved so multiple devices can talk to each other and provide integrated information.

Once these technological advancements come to fruition we will start to see wearables integrated into various aspects of our lives in combination with biometrics and social data and integrated with augmented reality devices and IoT. The final frontier will be wearables that enhance your physical attributes whether it’s smart eyewear or iron man suits that enhance strength.

Most of the benefits of wearables will be seen in Pharma and healthcare. As outcome based payments and care becomes more prominent and imminent pharma companies and healthcare companies will quickly rush to adopt these tools and devices. Most of the initial investment in these devices may come from pharma companies looking to speed up clinical trial and regulatory processes, locate more diverse populations, and companies creating innovative solutions for diseases that can cause mobility issues.

Potential reasons for slower adoption in pharma and healthcare

Outside of technology there are many questions about whether or not current business models are ready for the introduction of this new technology. In particular with wearables, the laws of unintended consequences is something that should really be examined before diving head first into adoption. Here are a couple questions that will need deep thought before wearable technology can be adopted for health applications:

- How will financial models for pharma companies work if wearable technology reduces the duration or need for medication?

- What potential weaknesses in clinical trials or drug development will wearables identify? Could there potentially be a situation where a drug’s effectiveness is called into question because a wearable technology identifies an activity that has the same effectiveness of as a drug?

- How will firms manage and analyze all of this data? Companies are already struggling with data management and the introduction of wearable technology will cause an explosion in data management, storage and analysis needs. Are the right people in place to manage the new IT, Regulatory, and HR needs generated by the introduction of a new technology?

- Is more data always a good thing? Could the addition of data open companies up to increased liability and lawsuits? For example a hospital that uses wearables to measure whether or not a patient has been flipped may open itself up to more law suits as there is now a digital record of a patient not being flipped. Especially when you consider that the issue may not be related to nurses flipping patients but to the hospital being understaffed.

While the natural inclination is to blindly praise these new technologies, as the questions above demonstrate, from a business perspective there are some issues that need to be worked out. Additionally from an individual perspective there are other risks that are hard to quantify and measure. One such risk is Transparency paradox, instead of people trying to do the best job or live the healthiest lifestyle, people may focus on solely hitting their sensor related targets. This focus may incentivize people to try and game the system, making them more likely to cheat and may result in unintended negative consequences. For example if I’m getting a discount on my insurance for taking 10,000 steps a day and my foot is hurting I may be inclined to ignore the foot pain to make sure I hit my target, causing other problems down the road. Another risk is a correlation vs causation example as Nassim Taleb put it, “Big data (and wearables) may mean more information, but it also means more false information… Because there is so much data available the spurious relationships may rise to the surface. This is because in large data sets, large deviations are vastly more attributable to variance (or noise) than to information (or signal).” This means we need to take caution in correlating wearables and the data to they collect to health related outcomes. Are wearables really contributing to the increases in productivity, is it a placebo or even simply knowing that you’re being tracked?

Risks and privacy concerns aside the future of wearables is very bright and important as we strive to increase individual’s wellbeing. Volkswagen is even designing a car that uses biometric data (via wearables) to determine the best driving route for an individual (aka the route that will cause the least amount of road rage). This sounds eerily similar to the car in Minority Report that changed color based on your mood. With innovation on the horizon like Google’s contact glucose reader, particle reader, and smart pills it’s only a matter of time before wearables are ready for prime time and the era of the quantified self will have arrived.