We are witnessing a change in the healthcare industry as technology becomes an integral, even required, aspect of healthcare delivery. For example, as of this writing, the global COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of telehealth as a provider platform. Moreover, novel technologies are becoming a more and more ubiquitous and expected aspect of the patient/provider experience.
Just as people encounter and adopt new technologies in their daily routine, from phones to washers & dryers, they encounter and adopt new technologies to promote their health.
I have identified areas that I believe are major areas for wearables research and innovation in the healthcare space:
Biofeedback monitoring has, in my mind, been among the most significant areas for wearable technology application to date. Heart rate and respiration monitors embedded in wearables, such as chest straps or T-shirts, have been on the market for quite some time.
But advancements have not yet progressed to fulfill the dreams of futurists and theorists. Health monitoring needs to advance past basic vital signs to monitoring for pain, disease progression, or stroke. Innovation in this field will drastically change patient care, allowing for faster and more accurate responses to signs of discomfort, pain or decline.
Improving Health Outcomes
How do we improve health outcomes post-surgery? Through the creation of assistive/rehabilitative devices and interventions that improve patient function and overall quality of life. This area is the second most common area for the development of wearables for health applications. Many of us have had experience with wearable medical devices – whether that be a wrist brace for a sports injury or a boot cast for healing post-surgery.
However, these devices are rarely designed with the end-user in mind. They are often uncomfortable, bulky, and most likely unattractive. Why is this? Why not make medical wearables that are practical for daily life? That are as easy and comfortable to wear as a sneaker? When we are injured or ill, we need to feel as much a sense of normalcy as we can and we can aid that effort with wearable devices that improve health while also being practical for daily use.
Independence (less reliance on caregivers)
Helping individuals with health challenges, disease, or disabilities be more independent has a special place in my heart. Having been caregiver with someone with a terminal disease, I understand how important independent living, be it performing self-care tasks or enjoying hobbies, is for self-esteem and self-worth.
At the beginning of his illness, my late husband struggled with driving, playing his guitar, and cooking. John loved to cook, and having Angiosarcoma, he had difficulty standing for long periods and maintaining the stamina of cooking a meal. He had such a hard time acknowledging that what was once such a fun and enjoyable part of his life, was becoming too difficult and painful to do.
As his disease progressed, he began needing help with basic daily activities. Although we were very close, the psychological pain of enduring the need to have a caregiver help with these basic tasks really hurt his sense of self.
Today, helping to promote or maintain patient independence is a core part of my work in wearables or health.
Quality of Life
Lastly, improving patient overall quality of life is an essential goal for medical wearables. Quality of Life (QoL) can be defined as “a patient’s general well-being, including mental status, stress level, sexual function, and self-perceived health status”.
Often, the impact on QoL is not considered an important design consideration for healthcare devices. Despite the critical importance of QoL, patient functionality is the central, and often only focus, for most biomedical technologies.
QoL relates to the patient’s emotional and psychosocial relationship with his or her health. By adding QoL effects as a design consideration for biomedical technology, researchers can take a broader, more inclusive approach to health-related wearables that are grounded in patient empathy. It is so important that these products are designed in this patient-driven way to ensure that patients not only improve physical function but also do so without hindering patient psychosocial health.
We are in a pivotal time for healthcare where technology advancements have, to some extent, caught up with the visions of innovators, making a wealth of new products and solutions possible. These are a few of the biggest areas where we are now in a position to advance, and many organizations are. Check out my blog on some of the biggest trends in wearable tech today, and if you enjoyed reading my thoughts on the industry, please subscribe to my blog here.