How Wearable Technology Changes Our Approach to Healthcare


February 13, 2018   Thomas G. Kimball, PhD

Twenty years ago, the idea of 24/7 monitoring and tracking of your health would have seemed like something out of Star Trek. The advent of smart technologies like smart phones, fitbits, smart watches, and heart rate monitors have revolutionized the healthcare industry, and are changing the way we approach patient care across the board. In your hand or pocket, at any given time of day, is a piece of technology that can monitor several biological factors, including your:

  • Heart rate
  • Exercise performed that day/week/month
  • RHR
  • Sleep cycles
  • Steps taken
  • Calories burned
  • Stress level

This type of data and tracking gives anyone who utilizes this technology a comprehensive and accessible snapshot of their health in an instant.

It’s not just new technologies revolutionizing healthcare, but advancements in existing technologies as well. Pacemakers, for example, are not a new technology, but they could now be categorized as a “wearable” just like any smartwatch you can purchase today. This technology has been around for quite some time, but with new advancements the capabilities of this device have increased exponentially.

Pacemakers are now equipped with wireless technologies that can transfer data in real time, and can be as small as the size of a large vitamin. The pacemaker’s data can be accessed immediately by patients and care providers to provide valuable insights about the device and the patient’s health, such as current heart rate, whether the device has been activated, and its battery life. For those whose condition is severe, having that kind of data at your fingertips could mean the difference between life and death.

Technology and the Patient/Doctor Experience

Interaction With Providers

Technological advancements not only change the way health data is gathered and accessed, but the way patients are treated. Doctors are using technology in order to evaluate and diagnose a patient in real time. In the past, a patient’s interaction with their primary care provider was much more cumbersome. The patient would be responsible for filling out several forms to describe their ailments. The doctor would then have to use this information in combination with a patient consult and patient records, which may or may not be complete, to assess and make an accurate diagnosis of the patient’s condition. The room for error or miscommunication resulting in misdiagnosis or unnecessary treatment in this type of process was far greater than it is now.

Today, a great deal of patient data is captured and stored electronically and easily accessible for multiple providers in an instant. Moreover, prior to a doctor ever accessing the patient’s data, complex algorithms interpret the information to narrow diagnoses and predict probable actions to treat the patient.

Prescriptions

Remember when prescriptions were hand-written slips of paper a doctor gave to a patient?

The patient was then trusted to deliver the prescription to a pharmacy where it was then filled and the medication was delivered to a patient. However, now archaic, this method has been replaced by electronic transfer of prescriptions exchanged directly between the physician and the pharmacy. These advancements ensure pharmacies have the necessary prescriptions on hand, patients will receive the medication they need in a timely manner and at a convenient location, and physicians maintain more safety and control over prescribing practices.

Furthermore, it is now regular practice for pharmacies to proactively contact patients when they need a prescription refilled. When the prescription is ready to be picked up, pharmacies contact the patient to let them know they can pick up their prescription at their convenience. That is a tremendous shift in patient care, and this type of accountability can prevent an array of human error resulting in negative outcomes for the patient, including:

  • Patients being over-prescribed
  • Patient access to prescription medicine
  • Abuse of prescription medicines, purposeful or accidental
  • Pharmacies mixing up prescriptions, or not having enough stock on hand to provide a patient with their prescription
  • In extreme cases, patients lapsing on their prescription refill resulting in an acute event

Predictive and Efficient Technology

Probably the most valuable aspect of data gathering through wearable technologies and health tracking devices is their ability to provide predictive analytics. That’s an important goal of healthcare providers: to provide proactive care instead of reactive care.

There are several companies creating amazing wearable technology solutions in the predictive healthcare field to address a wide range of health issues. One company taking a unique approach to wearable health technology in the behavioral health field is Lief Therapeutics. This company has created a discreet wearable device that allows you to better train your mental and physical response to stress. See below how they describe the device:

“Lief is a discreet biosensing patch that measures your heart and breath. Lief teaches you to control your body's natural stress response through gentle, safe biofeedback exercises.

...Use Lief throughout your day to improve your self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and positively control your behaviors, emotions and thoughts in-the-moment. When you’re upset, you can calm yourself down. When you’re down, you’re able to pick yourself back up. These resiliency skills are trained with Lief.

...Anxiety creates knee-jerk responses to triggers, increasing heart rate and shallow breathing. When wearing your Lief, learn to calm your mind, pay attention to your body’s state, and voluntarily control your heart, breath, and mindset.”

Given that in the behavioral health field many of the acute events we see, such as relapse, are brought on in part by stress and anxiety triggers, this type of device has the potential to not only improve the level of care for patients, but also to save lives.

Devices such as Lief have the potential to shift the healthcare landscape beyond just the behavioral health field. The vast array of negative impacts anxiety and stress have on the human body are overwhelming. If providers can utilize wearable technology to help patients regulate stress and anxiety levels, this could reduce the amount providers must depend on pharmaceutical solutions for several physiological conditions such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Insomnia
  • Digestion Issues
  • Immune system disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression

Another aspect of preventative medicine is reducing the chances of acute care moments. If a doctor can intervene before an event turns into an emergency room visit or emergency surgery, they’re going to save valuable resources over time. It also will improve quality of life for patients: the quicker a patient can be diagnosed and treated the better off they will be in the long run.

Raising Awareness

Simply having access to data about their own health is going to increase an individual’s awareness of their bodies and their health. People that use wearable technologies are better able to intervene and improve their own health before ever seeing a doctor, because they have a greater understanding of:

  • How much exercise they are involved in
  • How much their activity is affecting a pre-existing condition
  • How their behavior affects their heart or stress levels

Technological Innovation Isn’t Perfect

Accessibility

Developing and distributing technology is an expensive endeavor. As with all products, the burden of cost usually falls on the consumer. In the case of the healthcare industry, the consumer is a sick patient who is already dealing with the rising cost of healthcare treatment. Therefore, access can sometimes be restricted by the social determinants of health, such as:

  • Economic stability
  • Education
  • Community and social factors
  • Healthcare factors such as coverage, access, and quality of care

Furthermore, just because a technology is developed doesn’t mean everyone will have access to it. Developing and distributing new technologies for mass consumption is costly and time consuming. Especially true in the healthcare field, there are a variety of barriers manufacturers must overcome before providers and patients ever even gain access to their new technology.

Ageism

Generations who have grown up in an era of rapid innovation and abundant information have an easier time adapting to new technologies and new modalities of communication and care. Older individuals, whose healthcare needs are greater, face a steeper learning curve when adopting new devices and methods of monitoring and tracking their own health.

The adoption of new technologies by providers also falls along similar generational lines. Older practitioners who have been in their field for a long period of time are likely less inclined to change their methodologies. Whereas newer doctors, especially those coming out of medical school or still learning in teaching hospitals, are more willing to try new, cutting-edge technologies.

The Human Touch

Wearable technologies and health monitoring devices can’t do everything. There is an aspect of the patient/doctor relationship as well as clinical judgement that can’t be replaced by a computer. Moreover, data is not perfect. There is still the need for someone to interpret the data, and based on their own knowledge and experience, make a judgement call based on that interpretation.

Consider a patient coming out of surgery. The patient has been in constant contact with a nurse, resident doctor, and med-surgical nurse who have over 20 years of experience in the field. Any individual in that situation would want the med-surgical nurse who's watched hundreds and hundreds of patients come out of surgery, as well as the resident surgeon who has performed the operation hundreds of times, to make the decision on whether the patient goes home. That is not something technology can do at this point, and likely won’t be able to for the foreseeable future. Technology can’t replace experience. Seeing a patient face-to-face, even if doing so remotely via video conferencing, can be incredibly important in proper diagnosis and treatment.

However, utilizing technology to enhance the patient and provider experience enhances the level of care that can be administered. In that light, wearable technology and technological innovation in healthcare is a symbiotic relationship between the people involved in the care continuum and the devices that improve the experience.


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