Back in 2014, fitness trackers enjoyed a 74 percent market share, while the watches had a 13 percent share. Business with the small devices is correspondingly lucrative for the big manufacturers like Apple and Samsung. Wearables worth a total of 104.3 million euros were sold in 2016; that figure had risen to 125.5 million by 2017 – an increase of more than 20 percent. Analysts are forecasting that sales will grow by another 25 percent in 2018.
It seems that wearables are more than just hype and less impractical that fidget spinners. Indeed, they offer specific benefits. People who monitor their daily calorie consumption, their pulse, and thus ultimately their general health will live more healthily. This will please doctors and health insurance companies, because looking after your body saves them money. At the same time, the high demand for wearables in the leisure segment has rapidly advanced technological innovation and paved the way for medical applications. According to forecasts, the number of connected small devices will rise from a figure of 22 million in 2016 to 94 million by 2022.
Wearables are used in every stage of medical care – from prevention and outpatient and inpatient treatment to rehabilitation. The smart devices make it possible to provide a more accurate diagnosis, better monitor an individual’s vital parameters, and administer precisely balanced medication. An intelligent plaster can be used, for instance, to measure a patient’s blood sugar level or deliver the correct dose of a drug. Doctors can use a sensor in tablet form to monitor whether and when their patient has taken their prescribed medication. Accordingly, the physician now knows precisely whether a particular therapy has been unsuccessful due incorrect treatment or as a result of the medication not being taken. Wearables also help in cases of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or asthma by being able to provide doctors with a level of data that they wouldn’t otherwise get via conventional means.
Furthermore, wearables offer relief to chronically ill individuals and people who are temporarily or permanently restricted in their movement, including stroke patients. There is, for example, a training glove that strengthens the patient’s movement impulses using motion sensors and robotic support. Exoskeletons that give paralyzed patients the ability to walk again are also currently being trialed.
For all the benefits that wearables will provide for patients in future, however, there are also disadvantages – above all else, the question of who is permitted to use the gathered data. Systems used by some health insurance companies that reward patients for certain kinds of healthy behavior are already highly controversial. And if the smart plaster measures, for instance, how often a patient allows themselves a glass of red wine or lights a cigarette, is the health insurance company entitled to know and then potentially adjust the premium accordingly? Even though a penalty system such as this inevitably leads to a healthier lifestyle – and relieves the burden on the community of insured individuals – at the same time it massively restricts the individual freedom of the person. For this reason, there are high legal hurdles that forbid the unrestricted use of such highly personal data.
The desire to innovate nonetheless continues unabated, precisely because there is huge demand for health-related wearables on the part of the medical profession. Certified devices that comply with data protection regulations and simultaneously make it possible to send data via the cloud from the general practitioner to the consultant or hospital are as much in demand as the consistent improvement of existing, yet rather bulky wearables. In future, for instance, sensors for long-term ECG recording could be stitched into clothing or worn on the skin in the form of a plaster, allowing the vital data to be permanently monitored. This would be a blessing, particularly in regions where there is a shortage of doctors. Dangerous situations for patients could then be identified and averted at an early stage without having to travel long distances to the practice.
Oh, and not least, it would also save us having to sit around in the waiting room for hours on end. For this reason alone we are looking forward to the next innovations in the area of health-related wearables.