If you are reading this, there’s a good chance that your digital healthcare journey is already well underway. Not convinced? Are you wearing a fitness tracker that tracks your heart rate, your steps, or your sleep? Do you use your smartphone to track your calorie or caffeine intake, your meditation practices, or your menstrual cycle? Or do you send pictures to your family doctor or insurance company using a messaging app before heading out for a face to face consultation? These examples might seem banal. They aren’t. They’re harbingers of a deep-reaching transformation that we will see play out over the coming years.
Typically, we only see our doctor a few times a year, most often when we need acute care. What if, instead, you could have your vital signs checked every day, or even every hour? With health and medical sensors on your person, day in, day out, 24/7, that becomes a reality. Wearable health devices are already enabling a long list of eHealth applications, and the pipeline of new ones is even longer. And as remote health applications mature, they are graduating from gadgets and gimmicks to effective enablers of a healthy lifestyle, with a growing number of wearables receiving approval for medical use.
1. Early detection and management of neurodegenerative diseases
Despite their growing prevalence in an aging population, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson's, and Huntington’s disease still lack a cure. Catching them early, however, can help slow down their progression, while continuous monitoring with targeted interventions holds promise to enhance the life quality of those affected. Researchers are developing multiple approaches based on smart devices such as smartwatches to develop a “digital phenotype” of neurodegenerative diseases – e.g. the slowing of a patient’s gait, reduced heart rate variability, and other biomarkers – that, combined, could help clinicians catch dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases early on before they cause serious harm.
2. Fall detection
On the World Health Organization’s list of leading causes of unintentional injury death, the simple act of falling ranks second. Of the close to 650’000 victims it claims each year, the vast majority are elderly people. And that doesn’t even factor in those who survive only to deal with the long-term consequences. Falls are also a threat at the workplace, in particular when they affect lone workers, for instance, pipeline inspectors who work on their own and, in the event of an accident, might have to wait hours or days to be found. But they are a problem with a technological solution, in the form of wirelessly connected smart devices that are capable of first sensing a fall and physical inactivity, and then sending out a call for help using wireless connectivity. Solutions range from mainstream commercial products such as the Apple Watch to dedicated devices.
“Wearable health devices are already enabling a long list of eHealth applications, and the pipeline of new ones is even longer.”
3. Mental health chatbots
Stuck in a rut? Anxious? Depressed? Already today, smartphones can bring relief, connecting sufferers of mental health issues with chatbots programmed to deliver cognitive behavioral therapy. Based on research out of Standford, Woebot is a taste of things to come as psychiatry, smart devices, artificial intelligence, and counseling merge into ever more powerful solutions. Already today, the app, which is continuously under development, has proven to be effective in reducing anxiety and depression. Similarly, AI bots such as Mitsuku are being used to tackle the loneliness epidemic that is rampant, particularly among the elderly population. With the demand for therapy outpacing supply, and many still unwilling to see a therapist because of the associated stigma or cost, connected solutions could contribute to ensuring that everyone has access to therapeutic support.
4. Wearable air quality tracking
We all know that prolonged exposure to air pollution is harmful. But given that most pollutants are invisible, and many non-odorous, steering clear of airborne toxins is far from obvious. Leveraging low power, low-cost sensors for fine particulate matter and volatile oxidative compounds, new connected consumer devices continuously have their nose out to detect the concentration of these noxious pollutants. Whether they are wearable, such as the NotAnotherOne’s Atmotube, or otherwise portable, such as Plume Labs’ Flow, these devices send notifications straight to your smartphone or smartwatch, while at the same time contributing to a crowdsourced map of real-time air pollution information.
5. Allergen detection
According to foodallergy.org, in the US alone, allergies send someone to the emergency room every three minutes. And as more and more developing countries industrialize, the share of the population affected with food allergies keeps getting larger. Because most allergenic compounds are well identified, it was only a matter of time before a portable solution was developed to detect them on your plate. The Allergy Amulet, still under development, promises to detect allergens in connected samples in about a minute, before your soup gets cold, displaying results in a dedicated smartphone app.
6. Thwarting a silent killer
Because it has no easily apparent symptoms, high blood pressure, a common antecedent of cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease and cerebrovascular disease, is often referred to as a silent killer. As cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death globally, the growing number of wearable solutions targeting cardiovascular health is hardly surprising. In 2018, the Apple Watch became the first consumer wearable to be cleared by the US FDA for electrocardiogram monitoring. AliveCor’s Kardiamobile is a smartphone add-on that can detect a variety of heart rhythm anomalies. And Swiss-based aktiaa has developed a cuff-less blood pressure monitoring device that can create an uninterrupted blood pressure record to diagnose hypertension before it does any harm.
7. Diabetes Management
Digital technologies have already made major contributions to making diabetes more manageable. Connected wearable blood glucose meters can track blood glucose levels 24/7 and send them to the cloud via a nearby smart device. Patients can request to automatically receive alerts when they need insulin or sugar, and even notify loved ones and caregivers when predefined thresholds are exceeded. And already today, connected insulin pens can automatically dispense the exact amount of the hormone required to stabilize blood glucose levels in a closed loop requiring no manual intervention. Once a tedious ordeal, diabetes management has already become simple enough for children born with type 1 diabetes to manage the disease themselves, albeit with supervision, from an early age.
8. Sleep analysis
The vital importance of regularly getting a good night’s sleep to one’s wellbeing and the risks of not doing so are only now becoming appreciated by both the medical community and the public at large. Insufficient sleep has been linked to an increased incidence in everything from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight gain, cognitive decline, neurodegenerative disease, compromised immune function, and even cancer, as well as societal and economic consequences due to lost productivity, accidents, and healthcare costs associated with treating them. The combination of connected sleep sensors, smartphone applications, and machine learning algorithms are transforming and democratizing the study of sleep, spurring the development of new tools to deliver sleep interventions to those suffering from insomnia and diagnose and address other sleep-related issues.
9. Stress and fatigue monitoring
Whether you’re driving a car, a truck, or heavy machinery, performing surgery, or working on a construction site, excessive stress and fatigue can have dire consequences. Solutions such as Ellcie’s smart glasses are designed to detect fatigue in drivers by monitoring their blinking rate, how frequently they yawn or let their head drop, and the temperature inside their vehicle, and send them a warning. In France, they can even automatically connect drivers to a call center for a chat that will keep them awake until you reach their next stop. Researchers are also developing stress monitoring patches that combine several biological signals, including skin temperature, skin conductance, and pulse waves to determine stress levels in real-time. By linking such a solution wirelessly to a smartphone, those wearing the patch could receive alerts when they would be better off taking a break.
10. Brain stimulation
And finally, wouldn’t it be great if we could put our mind into the perfect state for whichever activity is next on our agenda? OmniPEMF’s NeoRhythm headband promises to do just that, and it has two, albeit small double-blind placebo-controlled trials to back up its claims. By stimulating the brain with a pulsating agnetic field tuned at the right frequencies, the NeoRhythm headband is said to improve sleep, promote relaxation, boost energy levels, support recovery, strengthen immunity, and even reduce pain.