Wearables and wellbeing; how the Apple Watch and others could prove pivotal to our health

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Posted by George Gabriel on 05 Mar, 2015

Over the past 18 months we have witnessed a sharp rise in the popularity of wearable technology, particularly in fitness and activity trackers. With the much-anticipated Apple Watch about to launch with personal fitness tracking as a key feature, the public fitness habit intensifying, and technology growing more intelligent, we are likely to see wearables playing a pivotal role in medical diagnostics, information sharing and general health in the not-too-distant future.

The personal fitness habit

The growth in our appetite for fitness tracking and overall awareness of our wellbeing can be attributed to smartphones, where GPS and accelerometer functionality now provides background activity tracking. Google added a monthly step-count summary to Google Now that lets users know how much they’ve walked and cycled over the past 31 days, and the M7 processor first seen in the iPhone 5s has the ability to passively categorise movements such as walking, running, cycling, sleeping and even stairs climbed. Representing a passive entry into fitness tracking, these developments show how technology can begin to support needs we didn’t realise we had, or provide information that we didn’t think we wanted. A number of third party apps have benefitted as a result, making use of the devices’ capability to help users track their runs, sleeping patterns, and even heart rate.

Wearable devices from companies like Fitbit and Jawbone have taken the proposition from the phone to the wrist, using gamification and an effective visualisation of data to enhance the user experience and paint an intriguing picture of our general health. It’s for this reason that personal fitness also forms a large part of the user experience on both Android Wear and Apple’s WatchOS, and these devices have supercharged the appeal of the simple pedometer. As a result, fitness monitoring has become a more exciting proposition and the presentation of such data has proven to be as important as the collation of it in the first place. These summaries are both beautifully presented and surprisingly in-depth, which together makes it easier than ever for us to keep an eye on our health and understand how our habits and actions determine our well being.

Industry implications and the medical benefits

There is more to tracking activity with a wearable than simply counting steps, however. When collected consistently, information on caloric intake, heart rate, sleep quality, weight and movement can paint an accurate picture of an individual’s health over time. Companies like Jawbone are using information from their devices collect to conduct demographic studies, most recently used to determine how much sleep different parts of the United States get. Wearables are making a big influence on modern corporate wellness programmes as well, and the result of startup company Appirio giving 400 of their employees Fitbit bands to track their wellbeing resulted in a 5% reduction in their annual insurance policy; equating to a saving of $280,000. BP have introduced a similar scheme for 14,000 of their employees and family members, and while there are understandable concerns over privacy, employees opt-in to the programme and determine the parameters they wish to share or keep private. It is worth considering that many health insurers already use factors such as BMI to determine premiums, and other areas – such as car insurance – already employ monitoring devices to reward people for good habits in the form of premium reductions.

In the medical industry, newer personal technology is attempting to measure factors such as air quality, blood pressure, body temperature and cholesterol, and will further aid in painting a more comprehensive medical picture. An exciting prospect concerns what might be made possible in the areas of early detection, illness prevention and post-treatment monitoring. By providing a comprehensive, up-to-date picture of user health, wearables may aid the NHS in determining the cause or location of illness, allowing the diagnosis and treatment of problems to take place at an earlier stage and with greater accuracy. Such preventative action would clearly save the NHS serious money, time, and resources, allowing doctors and hospitals to effectively diagnose and treat patients in a smaller window of time.

Keeping track of what we share

These concepts are of great significance and use to the healthcare industry,  but they also raise timely considerations over privacy. The implications of giving up our health data can be huge, and in buying fitness tracking devices we consent to sharing an enormous amount of data regarding personal health and fitness to an unquantifiable audience. This information is a great research tool but there is not currently a clear rulebook on what companies such as Fitbit and Jawbone are permitted to do with the data they collect, or with whom they can share it.

Wearable technology harnesses the ability to collect a powerful amount of data about the state of our bodies, and has the potential to be an instrumental asset to the healthcare industry. Allowing us to make more informed decisions in monitoring our health, it will also aid doctors in treating patients more effectively. But amidst heightened privacy concerns and the tendency of users to share personal information without considering the ramifications, it’s crucial that effective encryption and clear permissions on data sharing are established alongside the exciting potential developments in the field.

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