Your wrist buzzes. You glance down and notice that you've done your 10,000 steps for the day. It’s likely you think: so what? The chances are, you or someone you know, has bought a fitness tracker like Fitbit or Jawbone in the past few years. And while at first it seemed useful and exciting, the novelty of counting steps taken and hours slept may be wearing thin these days.
But what if your next wearable could start predicting things about your health? What if it could even save your life? That's what forward thinkers in the healthcare world are planning. They're part of a push that's taking wearables beyond gadgets and towards connected care where digital devices can monitor you in real time, then alert a doctor if you take a turn for the worse.
Predicting a heart attack
A new stick-on patch is one example of this emerging technology. Health and wellness multinational Philips has developed a small battery-powered medical grade wearable that can help spot the early signs of a heart attack or respiratory failure.
It works by sticking to the chest and continuously tracking eight key biometrics, including heart rate variability, posture, and breathing. The patch sends data to a digital platform which can spot the early signs of an emergency event. Typically these signs start between six and eight hours before an event, meaning that doctors can intervene in time.
The device is scheduled to launch before the end of this year and will mostly be used by hospitals to track high risk patients who would otherwise be confined to expensive intensive care wards. But the development team has bigger plans for it. "In the future, sensors like these will start to come into people's everyday lives to deliver predictive and preventative care," says Ravi Kuppuraj, chief architect for patient care and monitoring solutions at Philips.
Such preventative care not only benefits individuals but also has huge potential advantages for healthcare systems, which often face staffing and financial challenges.
Healthcare systems around the world are desperately in need of solutions like the stick-on patch. By 2030, 76 people will be dependent on every 100 workers globally, with the increase from current levels resulting from a growing number of older people. The economic impact of this dependency could be significant. An aging population is driving a rise in costly chronic diseases and resulting in overstretched healthcare professionals. Meanwhile, our experiences of being ill still mostly consist of brief visits to a doctor, or fragmented contact from a specialist.
"Connected care opens up the possibility to deliver more continuous and more effective care while at the same time reducing costs," says Lynne Dunbrack, research vice president for global research firm IDC Health Insights. Indeed, research suggests that proactive, preventative care enabled by digital solutions like wearables could potentially save healthcare systems hundreds of billions of dollars. As importantly, it could vastly improve the lives of millions of people.
Seeing 30 days into the future
Enabling connected care in people's home and daily lives is a big part of solving health challenges, since it allows people to live normally and is also relatively inexpensive.
Another Philips innovation uses predictive analytics to look not just eight hours into the future, but a full 30 days. For several years, elderly and frail people have been able to wear fall-detecting pendants, which sense if the wearer has fallen over and automatically call for help if they haven't stood up within a certain time frame.
Now Philips has connected its Lifeline pendant to a powerful predictive analytics engine called CareSage, which works out whether tiny changes in the wearer's activity and gait mean they are likely to fall in the next month. Then it alerts their key persondoctor, who can pass this information on to the wearer's key person.
Armed with this information, the person's neighbour, family member or community nurses can check in to make sure they are eating properly or taking their medication, for example. "From a human perspective, this is powerful," says Dunbrack. "It takes a huge weight off of the family and enables them to spend less time as carers, and more time as just daughters and sons again."
It could also save cash-strapped healthcare systems money. A study by non-profit US healthcare group Partners Healthcare took a retrospective look at 580 patients who used a Lifeline pendant without CareSage and needed a total of 560 expensive hospital transfers during the time period. The study estimated that 40% of these transfers could have been avoided if they'd used the predictive service, equal to a potential cost saving of $2.2 million.
Taking it to the streets
At the moment, most of these next generation wearables are destined for people with pre-existing conditions. That's where the biggest impact lies, both in terms of money saved as well as lives improved. But this technology is likely to be adapted for everyday people in the next few years.
In the meantime, expect new fitness trackers launching this year to offer added health services like personalized fitness programmes based on medical guidelines. So don't give up on wearables just yet.