Guest post by Derek Newell, CEO, Jiff Inc.
With another new year on the horizon, many are wondering what 2014 will bring. For those in health IT, the more important question might actually be wear – as in wearable devices. The popularity of wearables will continue to explode and the burgeoning trend will move from a mainstay primarily in Silicon Valley and other tech meccas to mainstream America.
Wearables on the rise
Just as smartphones have evolved from being the hot gadgets of the early adopter set into the must-have devices for teens, soccer moms and business people alike — after all, 55 percent of global phone sales in the last quarter were smartphones — so too will wearables proliferate in the year ahead. Indeed, ABI Research has predicted the wearables space is in for a huge growth spurt, estimating the global market for health and fitness wearables to reach 170 million devices by 2017 (2).
2014 will see evolutionary advancements in wearable devices: they’re going to get smaller, sleeker, and more beautiful; battery life will increase; syncing will go wireless for everyone; a huge new generation of devices will emerge both from existing players and new players, and an even larger number of applications based on the new chips phone manufactures are building directly into smartphones will emerge with user interfaces as varied as ice cream flavors. But, at the current rate of innovation, I’m really hoping to see more revolutionary changes in the year ahead as well. My favorite would be anything that cracks the laborious food and calorie tracking nightmare for consumers.
Activity tracking is one of the largest predicted growth areas in the wearable device field. Seven in ten U.S. adults currently track a health indicator for themselves or a loved one, and exercise is by far the most common of these (3). Whether monitoring the number of steps taken in a day or the amount of calories burned, activity trackers are set to grow in popularity in 2014 with early adopters from the fitness and technology industries, including Nike, Under Amour, Adidas, Fitbit, Jawbone and Apple (with its new M7 chip) leading the charge as new technology, particularly sensors that function on or near the body, are introduced.
With the dizzying amount of variety in the space, 2014 will see an increasing amount of fragmentation even as the space grows dramatically in size. This is because winners in the market will divide the space specifically based on meeting a subset of users’ needs exceptionally well. Devices and companies that can consolidate various metrics and produce a dashboard of the collected data for the users will also start to set themselves apart.
Food for thought
There are lots of apps that allow users to manually track food, but currently no “wearable” technology that tracks what a person is putting into his or her mouth. The Ario wristband (recently crowd funded and even more recently, refunded to all purchasers) promised to analyze food intake using an integrated spectrometer and accurately document calorie and nutritional information for all the food a person ingests. Technically not a wearable, TellSpec is another new product that uses a similar technology to scan the food someone is about to eat to evaluate its contents. Passive or simplified food tracking is the holy grail of wearable technologies and while we don’t anticipate anyone being able to crack this nut in 2014, it is definitely an area to watch, because it is one of the most important and difficult challenges in digital health today.
Heart rate monitoring and beyond
Of course, tracking food and activity – calories, fat, miles, laps, or reps – goes hand in hand with monitoring other vital statistics, such as heart rate. A colleague recently told me that the first wireless EKG Heart rate monitor was invented in 1977 as a training aid for the Finnish National Cross Country Ski team. Now Bluetooth chest heart rate straps are flooding the market. So, what else is new?
New technology will allow heart rate to be measured in places other than, well, the heart. The Basis B1 watch already tracks several statistics including heart rate, skin temperature and perspiration at the wrist through the use of LED lights (4). We’re beginning to see “smart fabrics” (fabric and apparel with built-in sensors), such as NuMetrex’s heart sensing sports bras, shirts and tank tops. Taking it a step further, companies like MC10 and Sano Intelligence are building biometric measuring temporary tattoos and patches, sensors that can be applied to the skin to provide users with real-time personalized feedback.
Modern wearables’ ability to sense vital statistics including heart rate will help ensure people train smarter. As these devices become more advanced, they will not only provide more information to the users, but also more choice in how and where they wear their wearables. Now try saying that three times fast.
Finally, sleep is one of the most vital needs for optimal human health and functioning, and improving sleep quality has increasingly become a focus in the wearable sector. Devices, such as Jawbone UP or FitBit Flex, provide some data on the amount and quality of sleep a person receives and can wake them during the best point in their sleep cycle. Knowing how a person is (or isn’t) sleeping can ultimately provide valuable insight into a host of other health factors, such as stress, weight and immunity. But some may not particularly enjoy sleeping with a wristband so 2014 will see innovations in the sleep segment of wearables that are less wearable. Companies like beddit (recently funded on Indigogo) will develop more comfortable ways to track sleep patterns, such as a thin mattress sensor, for example.
There are almost too many possibilities in too many categories to count. Though I’ve only touched on what I think will be the leaders, I’ll also be keeping an eye on emerging technology on the “softer” side of health, such as breath control, focus and resiliency tracking; areas where companies like Melon and Spire are making some interesting advances and are definitely worth watching.
Ultimately, wearable devices give people more knowledge about their health and fitness in real time, and as the old cliché goes – knowledge is power. Recently, the Pew Research Center found that 46 percent of people who track various health indicators, such as heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, sleep patterns or exercise, said it changed their overall approach to maintaining health. Furthermore, 40 percent said it has led them to ask a doctor new questions or request a second opinion, and 34 percent said it has affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition.(5)
What does this mean for health IT?
So what does the wearable revolution mean for health IT? Bottom line, it means data – and lots of it. Providing individual patients, physicians, employers and insurers with troves of real-time data will impact how the entire health care ecosystem functions. Rather than waiting for an appointment, doctors and patients can get a baseline on specific health indicators at any minute of the day.
With this knowledge people will be able to accelerate their health goals, make more informed decisions and provide their health professionals with more accurate information. The end result? A consumer population that is more aware of how their behavior affects their health and better clinical treatment. As wearables become smarter in the year ahead with the various apps and devices on the market connecting to one another and working together to form a complete picture of a person’s health, these impacts will multiply. Companies like Jiff that seek to connect this ecosystem and the major players within it – consumers, physicians, insurers and employers, etc. – will help facilitate and perhaps even speed up this eventual reality, bringing the wearables and health care system of the future, where what we wear will be as important as how we live for overall health and longevity.
1.) Brenner, Joanna. “Pew Internet: Mobile,” PewInternet.com, Sept. 18, 2013.
2.) Ranck, Judy. “The Wearable Computing Market: A Global Analysis,” GigaOM Pro, July 2012.
3.) Fox, Susannah, and Duggan, Maeve. “Tracking for Health,” Pew Research Center, Jan. 28, 2013: 2-3.
4.) Pitzer, John W., et al. “The Next Big Thing – Wearable Are In Fashion,” CreditSuisse, May 17, 2013.
5.) Fox, Susannah, and Duggan, Maeve: 2.
Derek Newell is a healthcare industry veteran and the CEO of Jiff Inc., a digital health technology company that enables employers to engage in collaborative, connected relationships with the consumers they serve. He has more than 20 years of experience growing and leading innovative healthcare technology and service companies, including expertise in remote patient monitoring.