Wearables in MedTech: Past, Present & Future

20 January 2021 Resources

Today, wireless gadgets are integrated into our daily lives. In this era of progressive technological advancement, wearable devices are predominantly being developed for two main market segments- medical/healthcare and sports/fitness.

89% of wearable products are wrist-worn (smartwatches) used for monitoring things like:

  • Heart rate
  • Sleep quality
  • Activity
  • Ambient temperature
  • The rest are most commonly worn on the ears, eyes, and clothing.

According to Raconteur Media Ltd, the main wearables markets in 2015 were:

  • Asia Pacific – 34.2%
  • North America – 29.7%
  • Western Europe – 17.9%

The global market is set to expand, and a 2015 International Data Corporation (IDC) report predicts that total shipped wearables over the world will almost double from 111.1 million units in 2016 to 214.6 million units in 2019.

Why wearables?

Medical and healthcare is one of the key applications for wearables of the future fuelled by the development of more accurate and reliable technology for monitoring body conditions, collecting data wirelessly, and potentially even identifying disease symptoms.

Wearable MedTech introduces the possibility of continuous patient monitoring, home healthcare, and real-time health and fitness optimization where the user and health professional can use data collected and transferred from wearables to users’ smartphones.

In this instance, there emerges a data hub that directly links patients to hospitals, physicians, and caregivers as well as pharmaceutical and life sciences organizations.

Several obstacles still need to be overcome before wearables reach widespread use in healthcare; these include:

  • Reliability and accuracy of the devices when patients are under different environmental conditions
  • Regulatory hurdles may be higher due to the necessary protection of users’ information and medical data, as well as the risk of hacking
  • Power usage
  • Improvement of sensors
  • Smart materials
  • User compliance

The evolution of wearables in MedTech

One of the core drivers behind the development of wearable medical devices is that healthcare is shifting from hospital care to home care, and eventually to personal health care.

We have already seen a switch from lab-based tests and fixed medical systems to lightweight, point-of-care medical devices and IVD’s, and so wearables for patients seem like a logical next step.

Key moments in medical wearables

1960’s According to Fotiadis, Glaros, and Likas, the first medical wearable was the Holter monitor, used for recording ECG data. It is a while until we start seeing wearable MedTech as we now understand it.

2003 Garmin launches ‘Forerunner’, a sports watch which could measure running distance and speed as well as the user’s heart rate.

2006 Nike and Apple launch Nike+ iPod incorporating a shoe-worn sensor that transfers running data to the user’s iPod. This gives the everyday fitness enthusiast never-before-available information such as calories burned and their exact running distance.

2009 Fitbit, another major player, joins the wearables market. The Fitbit Tracker was attached to a belt or clipped onto clothing and assessed the users’ travel distance, burned calories, and sleep patterns. Its unique feature was a wireless connection that helped wearers to track data online and monitor their progress.

2009 The start of smarter commercially available wearable medical technology as larger medical device companies see the potential for higher profit margins with higher barriers for competitors to enter. One of the early-movers was the Zoll Lifevest, a body-worn device that monitors heart rhythm and can predict sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). The Lifevest monitors the patient and records their data, and incorporates a wearable defibrillator to deliver shock treatment when a life-threatening heart rhythm is detected.

2011 Jawbone enters the wearable market with their first fitness tracker, Jawbone UP.

2011 Focusing on the beginning, rather than the end of life, Duo Fertility is launched by Cambridge Temperature Concepts Ltd. Their device monitors women’s basal body temperature and notifies them of their ovulation period six days in advance in order to increase the chances of natural pregnancy.

2012 Biosensics LLC produces BalanSens, which can assess the center of mass of a patient to help doctors measure sway areas and sway index. It is the first wearable device dedicated to balance problems. Within a short period of time in development terms, we see inter-industry advances in wearable technologies such as those aimed at keeping elderly patients out of care homes.

2016 A smartwatch invented by Unaliwear called Kanega incorporates several more sophisticated functions than BalanSens, such as guiding users back home by providing auditory directions from its GPS system and automatically connecting to emergency contacts if it detects a lack of patient response following a fall.

Where is the market heading? What’s next for MedTech wearables?

Research conducted by ABI research (2014) estimated that the number of wearable devices for healthcare would exceed that of fitness trackers and predict that healthcare wearables will become the largest product segment in the wearable market in 2019.

To retain customers, fitness devices are going have to be able to integrate as many functions as possible within one device – no one is going to wear more than one or two watches!

In the medical space, we should see a refinement of condition-specific wearables where patients are prescribed the best devices to monitor their particular illness.

With the emergence of wearables, related applications, and connectivity through smartphones, the relationship between doctors and patients is going to experience a significant change. In the future, Doctors and caregivers could proactively manage a patient’s health condition without being restricted by the information provided during visits.

In addition, the life insurance industry may also be affected in the near future. In a 2014 PWC report, 70% of consumers stated that they were willing to wear devices provided by their employers in order to get breaks on their insurance premiums.

Beyond this, we predict a need to move away from standard form factors such as watches so that future wearable products will feel more like part of the body than an accessory. For instance, the Verily smart contact lens which can analyze the blood glucose level of the wearer’s tears and skin patches that can analyze sweat to monitor diabetes.

Responsibility does not lie with the developers and regulators in isolation, but with consumers too. A 2014 study by Endeavour Partners found that one-third of US wearable customers stopped using their wearables six months after receiving them – clearly, we are still some way off from wearables being considered more than just an accessory.

For MedTech wearables to hit the mainstream market, we are dependent on a combination of technological advancements and an increase in user-compliance.

In light of our exploration of the topic, we don’t think that this is too far off – having seen for ourselves the advancements, outcomes, and progress, the future of medical wearables is a bright and exciting one.

For MedTech wearables to hit the mainstream market, we are dependent on a combination of technological advancements and an increase in user-compliance.

In light of our exploration of the topic, we don’t think that this is too far off – having seen for ourselves the advancements, outcomes, and progress, the future of medical wearables is a bright and exciting one.