What Can Wearable Devices Really Do?

We’ve all heard the phrases “wearable technology” and “wearable devices” tossed around as tech enthusiasts get more excited about the potential for small sensors and electronics packed into a sporty watch or wristband to track our fitness and health everyday. Whether they’re tracking sweat, monitoring sleep, counting calories, measuring steps, or charting runs, products like the Jawbone, FitBit, or Nike Fuel Band seem useful enough when you’re healthy — though for many consumers, not yet useful enough to buy one and keep using it for more than six months — but what about when you’re sick? When will wearable device manufacturers apply the technology to ideas that could be useful in clinical settings, or for use in diagnostic or medical research purposes?

If Intel has its way, that time is now. The company is partnering with the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research to find patterns in the data collected by wearable devices that monitor patients’ symptoms. In Intel’s announcement of the partnership, the company noted that the study aims to improve research and treatment of Parkinson’s disease, and will pioneer a new big data analytics platform to measure the progression of the disease. With that knowledge, researchers could better develop drugs and treatments for Parkinson’s patients. Todd Sherer, chief executive of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, said in Intel’s news release:

“Nearly 200 years after Parkinson’s disease was first described by Dr. James Parkinson in 1817, we are still subjectively measuring Parkinson’s disease largely the same way doctors did then. Data science and wearable computing hold the potential to transform our ability to capture and objectively measure patients’ actual experience of disease, with unprecedented implications for Parkinson’s drug development, diagnosis and treatment.”

By fitting patients with wearable devices, researchers for the project by Intel and the Michael J. Fox Foundation will be able to get a better handle on the variety of symptoms with which Parkinson’s manifests. The huge amount of data that the multi-phase study collects — more than 300 observations per second for each patient — will be combined with a growing base of molecular data contained in the cellular profiles created by researchers pioneering continually improving genomics and proteomics techniques. The data from the wearable devices’ observation of patients’ symptoms, like slowness of movement, tremors, and sleep quality, will correlate with this molecular data to afford a better understanding of the disease.

The study will enable Intel to demonstrate the power of the Cloudera distribution of the Hadoop software in a data platform deployed in the cloud — a platform that Intel says could soon store patient, genome, and clinical trial data, plus deliver predictive models for disease progression through the use of machine learning and graph analytics.

The inclusion of wearable devices in the study may come as a surprise to the general consumer, who typically only sees wearable devices used to count steps throughout the day, track the distance of a daily run, or monitor nightly sleep patterns. But as Intel’s study aims to demonstrate, wearable devices have the potential to bring real diagnostic value to medical research, making observations of patients’ behavior and symptoms that physicians aren’t around to make and patients often aren’t able to make in such precise detail.

The Intel news release notes:

“Wearables can unobtrusively gather and transmit objective, experiential data in real time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With this approach, researchers could go from looking at a very small number of data points and burdensome pencil-and-paper patient diaries collected sporadically to analyzing hundreds of readings per second from thousands of patients and attaining a critical mass of data to detect patterns and make new discoveries.”

Wearable devices are no longer just fitness bands and smartwatches. Instead of focusing only on fitness and general wellness, wearable devices are beginning their entrance into healthcare in earnest. They’re also glucose monitors, blood pressure monitors, ECG monitors, and can track breathing, monitor heart rate (like the Mio Link), or sense stress (like Spire). Since wearable devices offer constant, objective monitoring, they have the potential to produce vast amounts of data that researchers can analyze to find patterns that will help them better understand the progression and management of chronic conditions. As MDDI Online reports, the accompanying data analysis tools can flag anomalies for healthcare providers’ attention, give insight into patient behavior and progress, and even shed light on more nuanced patterns of events and symptoms than patients are able to report.

Wearable devices on the market today are numerous, though medically-oriented ones definitely less so than those meant for general fitness and wellness. But if you look toward innovative startups and other companies looking to solve specific problems, you’ll find a vast array of devices that are capable of making a real difference in people’s lives.

Proteus Digital Health’s FDA-approved Ingestion Event Markers are ingestible sensors that can be placed inside a pill and transmit information on when it was consumed, or provide metrics like heart rate, body position, and activity, to a patch on the user’s stomach. From that patch, the data can be sent to an app on the patient’s phone and then to a healthcare provider, who can use the information to adjust medications and treatments.

Reebok’s CheckLight cap is equipped with sensors that indicate the severity of head injuries through a set of LED lights, which alert athletes, coaches, trainers, and even parents of young athletes to the force of an impact. While the cap isn’t meant to diagnose a concussion, it helps determine when it’s a good idea to seek medical attention following an injury. Similarly, X2 Biosystems’ xPatch adheres to the skin behind the ear to measure head injuries and chart the impact’s direction and location.

Neumitra’s biowatches measure the sympathetic nervous system to track stress, figure out what triggers anxiety, and find out how stress affects brain health and performance. The watches are accompanied by a mobile app that notifies wearers when they need to take steps to relax.

Imec has developed “integrated wearable systems” that include a smart ECG necklace for cardiac monitoring aimed at arrhythmia detection, stress monitoring, and epilepsy monitoring; a wearable EEG headset that can be set up and worn by the patient to record alpha waves while at rest, or when moving slowly; and wireless sensors to analyze gait and balance in the elderly.

Preventice’s BodyGuardian Remote Monitoring System is also a cardiac monitoring tool for the detection of arrhythmia, cleared by the FDA and built to enable physicians to continually monitor ambulatory patients’ physiological data.

iHealth Labs recently unveiled a range of wearable medical devices, such as an ambulatory blood pressure monitor meant to be worn around the clock, and deliver blood pressure readings at 15, 30, 45, 60, or 120-minute intervals. iHealth has developed a wireless ambulatory ECG, which fits under normal clothing, and a wearable pulse oximeter that continuously monitors pulse and blood oxygen saturation via a fingertip sensor connected to a wristband.

Of course, Google, in addition to developing a smart contact lens that can measure glucose, is undertaking a project we recently reported on called the Baseline Study, which is intended to enable researchers formulate a better understanding of the genetics of health. As part of that research, the Google X Life Sciences group is developing wearable devices to continually collect data from study participants, and those unspecified wearable devices, possibly like the ones Intel will use in its research, could yield large amounts of data from which researchers could identify patterns they haven’t yet detected.

One challenge of wearable devices’ growing utility for healthcare as well as for general wellness is the transition from classification as consumer devices to FDA regulation as medical devices. It’s a similar challenge to the one that Apple faces with the development of its HealthKit framework, which will aggregate health-related data from third-party apps and devices for patients to share with their physicians.

Though Apple may try to place the responsibility for compliance with HIPAA privacy regulations on healthcare providers, the platform and the apps developers build for it will likely need to be HIPAA-compliant to be used in clinics, hospitals, and doctor’s offices. In the same way, physicians, clinics, and healthcare providers will want wearable devices to be FDA-approved before depending on them to treat patients.

Another problem for tech entrepreneurs is what to do with all of the data that wearable devices can generate. Companies like Intel and Google are perhaps best poised to come up with the solution, as each has the capability to manage and analyze staggeringly huge amounts of information. In the future, other device manufacturers may rely on the methods and even infrastructure established by more data-capable companies.

While wearable devices may be a few years off from widespread use in diagnostics and treatment, it’s exciting to know that the technology is on its way. As fitness bands and wellness-focused smartwatches grow in popularity, tech companies from the biggest players to newly established startups are looking to develop innovations for the healthcare market, and that includes the more complex applications of wearable tech and big data to important problems and clinical situations.

Smaller sensors and lower-cost electronics mean that widespread medical use of such technology is on its way — especially if manufacturers can get their devices FDA-approved — which in turn means that your local doctor, clinic, or hospital may soon be using wearable tech to change how diseases and chronic conditions are detected, treated, managed, and understood.

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