Thursday, 25 September 2014

Wearable Tech and Digital Healthcare

Before I begin, I must apologise for my longer-than-foreseen absence. I’ve been dragging my carcass the lengths and breadths of the country in search of gainful employment. Which I duly found, by the way.  Woot. Go me and my new capacity to earn and feed myself. Just like a real adult. Lol.

This week’s article will be continuing the series on Wearable Technology by looking at one of the key industries buying into wearables in a big way: the healthcare industry.

Fitness Wearables - NOT MY PHOTO

Early on, the wearables market was awash with gadgets designed around fitness  and wellbeing. Devices which could tell you how fast you’d run, or how far, how many calories you had consumed or burnt off. The very nature of wearable technology, its interaction with the body perhaps makes it unsurprising that wearable devices would soon branch out, past fitness, to our health.

There are devices which focus on basic things, such as the Netatmo June which measures your sun exposure. Created by a jewellery designer to look like a diamond, the facets of this device play with the rays of the sun and, with the help of a UV sensor, measure your skin’s exposure. The June then communicates this information to your smartphone which will send you handy tips such as “Hey mate, you should probably put a hat on about now” or “Oooh, look at that lovely patch of shade, that looks inviting”. Or, in my case, probably something along the lines of “Hey, Pasty Patsy, I reckon you’d be better off with SPF 1000”.*
*Note: it is highly possible that the writer of this blog has paraphrased the June’s tips. Please do not be disappointed if this device does not talk to you as if you were buds. 

The Netatmo "June" - NOT MY PHOTO

Then there are devices which centre on more specific health concerns, such as Artefact’s Dialog, designed for people with epilepsy. It is estimated that around 600,000 people in the UK suffer from epilepsy (that’s one in every 103). Currently, there are two ways that epilepsy is treated: wearable sensors which detect seizures and alert family members and journals where patients log their daily moods and medication. The Dialog goes one better and does both.

The Artefact "Dialog" - NOT MY PHOTO

Like a digital tattoo, the Dialog is worn directly on the skin, like a sticker. It has an e-ink screen and a variety of sensors which communicate with a smartphone. The sensors can track things such as hydration, temperature, pulse, and other biometrics AND, most importantly, the user can interact with it and input data themselves, swiping to log their mood or double tapping to indicate they feel  a seizure coming on. If the patient is having a seizure, they can grab the module with their whole hand, triggering a call for help. This interactive aspect adds a dimension that sensors could never access. Considering the data picked up by the sensors and the data input by the wearer together can help to lower a patient’s seizure threshold  and educates them on what exactly is going on in their bodies, and how that is making them feel.

The Artefact "Dialog" - NOT MY PHOTO

Another huge entry in the digital health market is Google’s smart lens. Currently working in partnership with the pharmaceutical giant Novartis, Google is developing a contact lens which promises to revolutionise the lives of those living with diabetes. The lens contains a low power microchip and an almost invisible electronic circuit which measures diabetics’ blood sugar levels from their tear fluid. This data is then sent to a mobile device, such as a smartphone.

Google's smart lens - NOT MY PHOTO

Novartis also plans to use this new eyewear technology to help people who are long-sighted. Using a similar technology to that used by a digital camera when it automatically focuses on an object, Novartis want to develop a contact lens which will autofocus on objects, essentially getting rid of the need for reading glasses. So very clever.

Also in the pipeline for the visually-impaired are a new pair of fancy smartshoes. There have been various concepts for smartshoes over the past few years, with brands such as Adidas and Nike developing shoes for athletes with integrated sensors, but they have never made it to the market. Indian company Ducere Technologies, however, are about to launch their product the Lechal (“Lay-chull”, which means “Take me along” in Hindi”), a navigation shoe which will be the very first of its kind.

The Lechal is connected via Bluetooth to Google maps on the user’s smartphone and gives directions by vibrating. It will also monitor statistics such as steps taken or distance walked. This device – which is being offered either as a shoe, or as an insole – promises to offer the user a sixth sense of sorts.

Ducere Technology's "Lechal" -  NOT MY PHOTO

What all of these devices have in common, is the potential to empower those who suffer from particular conditions and to liberate those who are merely health-conscious from constantly having to monitor their physical being and its interaction with their environment. This is one of the key reasons why wearable technology is set to have an enormous impact on the health industry, both short- and long-term. The digital healthcare market currently represents billions of dollars of potential revenue and so it is unsurprising that many major tech players are eager to expand into this area.


Wearables can be used by both doctors and patients; patients so that they can access information without having to consult a doctor, and doctors so they can keep an eye their patients when they’re not in the surgery. These new wearable devices can become monitors for both health and disease. They could be used in clinical trials for remote studies and to collect real-world data, as well as being a tool for medication adherence. Patients will now be more able to look after themselves, changing the relationship between them and their doctors, and giving doctors more time for other patients. Although currently these devices are mostly used to collect data and provide analysis, there is the belief that they will be able to help seek cures, improve outcomes, and – ultimately – be used as a preventative measure, to help people before they get sick.


Although it is true that health-focussed wearables pose some problems, in the form of long-term device maintenance, and people’s concerns over privacy, it is clear that in the long run they could lead to reduced costs and more personalised healthcare. If technology firms carry on along this route, we could be seeing remote consultations and operations, robotic treatments, and advanced digital diagnosis become standard parts of daily life.  Now wouldn’t that be something!

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