By Anna Barnacka, PhD, CEO and founder, MindMics.
Thanks to the explosion of affordable and miniaturized wearable technology, consumers now have a sizeable increase in awareness of individual health data. In the United States alone, consumer use of wearables has increased from 9% to 33% in just four years, and the industry is expected to continue to grow. We are at the dawn of a new era in which consumers will be equipped with a constant stream of knowledgeable and actionable data.
When wearables entered the consumer market about a decade ago, they were something for “health geeks” – people who were passionate about understanding the functioning of their bodies and who generally knew how to interpret the data they were receiving. Since then, there has been an incredible shift, brought on mainly by consumer electronics companies, towards creating wearables for everyday use. In the last three years alone, we have seen the huge impact that these companies have had with their messaging and marketing; now, wearables are for everyone.
Current wearables on the market can give us data about diabetes, hypertension or cardiac health, such as arrhythmias. With this technology, we can take control of our health and are provided with tools to monitor and change our behavior based on the gathered information. Before wearables, terms like heart rate variability (HRV) rarely – if ever – were mentioned in the mainstream media. Now, this information is available at our fingertips.
Wearables are not only making health information more accessible but also making it more personal. No longer do you need to wait for your annual physical to have a health update – you can take an electrocardiogram (ECG) whenever and wherever you want, using a device on your wrist. Wearables are finally affordable and blend into our lifestyles. More importantly, they allow us an almost constant stream of data to monitor individual health metrics. Wearables allow us to take control of our personal health and that starts with tracking health data on our own initiative.
As we continue to learn about and become more involved with our own health, it is time to use this technology to create change in real-time. Consumer wearables give us feedback on our health, but that feedback – until now – has been provided minutes, hours, or days later. This gives us a chance to reflect on the meaning of the information retroactively but relies on the user to analyze that data – then attempt to implement changes proactively.
Combining breakthrough advances in our understanding of physiology and accurate real-time data gathering from wearables opens a slew of possibilities. For example, we can monitor health data to better understand the reactional effects of our automatic nervous system. We can observe the physiological impacts of getting particularly stressed during a work meeting with our boss (or an employee). We can build systems that nudge us to take steps to not only calm our anxiety but to more constructively use our stress response overall and to build resilience by developing techniques that help us better prepare for stressful events.
There is a sizeable demand for tools to decrease stress and anxiety – and a large potential to boost productivity, happiness and quality of life – if we create systems that nudge us to curb the response of our autonomic nervous system. These changes can significantly improve our overall health in the long run. Understanding what makes you stressed can lead to learning tools to manage it in real-time. This can enable consumers to build healthy habits that affect our entire nervous system. Instead of just comparing and viewing the data on our wearables, we can become empowered and use the data to improve health outcomes.
Wearables are easy to use and provide consumers with a huge amount of data each day. However, as easy as these are to access, there are no existing regulations in the consumer space for how precise or accurate the data needs to be, and consumers are not provided with adequate warnings about the inaccuracy of these devices. As we continue to explore the wearable technology space and drive consumers to rely on wearable devices for health insights, it is important to continue to fine-tune these technologies, in terms of both the hardware and the algorithms and other science that enable us to isolate valuable signals from noise.
Most current consumer wearable technology utilizes photoplethysmography, which measures blood volume via an optical technique that relies on a light source and photodetector. This technology uses the pulse of blood in our capillaries just below the surface of our skin to determine health data outputs. Using this data for overall lifestyle changes is limited by both the fundamental inaccuracy of this approach, and unavoidable time delays. And although this is a cost-effective method of gathering data on heart rate and rhythm, it often underestimates values, and research shows, that this method of collecting data also disproportionately affects data samples from darker-skinned individuals by significantly reducing the number of data points gathered.
As the market for wearable technology expands, companies and consumers should encourage more accurate technology in addition to the convenience that these products supply. The potential of wearable devices to act as effective preventative health tools and provide health insights is incredibly valuable to the consumer and to the healthcare industry. With accurate real-time data, consumers can discover health patterns and irregularities, while observing the processes of their nervous system in reaction to daily tasks or events. In the future, medically accurate wearable devices will change the way we are able to think about, interpret, control, and predict our health. It is time to start making wearables not just for exercise but to bring a holistic appreciation of the impact of all daily activities on our overall life. To do this, we must first make wearables easily integrated and accessible. It is time to start looking at new forms of wearables that – while maintaining comfort and convenience – can provide accurate and actionable health data insights.
Wearables may one day allow consumers to avoid surgeries. Perhaps stents can be modified, based on what we are learning now, to provide doctors with an insight into internal health patterns. A wearable could provide the same accuracy without an invasive procedure. We may even advance and refine what we have so that we can predict strokes, diagnose heart diseases, and more.
We continue to hear from more researchers about the possible changes we can make to our bodies with the tools we all have within our reach. These positive changes include improved sleep, slowing the aging process, reducing stress, increasing focus, and more. We live in a time of accelerated research, made possible by massive amounts of data and affordable technologies.
We must have, as consumers, a higher expectation of our wearables in terms of precision and utility and continue to push for more accuracy. We should insist that companies create products that produce real-time, actionable, and medically accurate data. By doing this, we can drive better health decisions and outcomes, extending and improving the quality of our lives.