There's little doubt that wearable technologies can help the ill, especially those with chronic disease, as they offer doctors a unique, real-time view of a patient’s status. Though there are many other types of tools available, most clinicians have focused on using wearables to monitor severe chronic conditions like diabetes and congestive heart failure.
That being said, digital health wearables (DHWs) are in wide use by young, healthy people with a strong interest in fitness, as well as a cross-section of other consumer users.
More than 50% of millennials are predicted to purchase wearables next year, according to research by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
What's more, 21% of Americans already own wearable devices, the consulting firm found.
Given their broad uptake, DHWs have significant potential to help both the sick and the well, though the product design and system implementation for the two would need to be tailored to each group's specific needs, argues Forbes contributor Todd Hixon. Getting to people who are still healthy may be even more impactful than helping the chronically ill, Hixon says.
"Providers can do more at far less cost to keep people healthier at a given stage of life if they can influence patients to adopt healthy behaviors," he says. "Behavior makes 4x more difference than medicine to a person's health status."
While research has focused on how wearables can cut the cost and improve outcomes of chronic care, preventing disease in healthy people can have a significant impact on these variables as well, he notes.
So it makes no sense to focus on illness and ignore healthy people, Hixon says.
Integrating digital health data into care
Getting to the point where DHWs are integrated into clinical care will be a stretch. As Hixon points out, there are some difficult hurdles to climb, regardless of a patient's health status. For example, doctors will have to change their workflows and expectations, and figure out to manage the inflow of wearables data.
After all, since there is no existing standard of care for this technology, doctors will have to decide on their own how quickly they must react to urgent issues suggested by wearables data, and whether they trust the devices the patients are using.
They'll also have to figure out how to get paid for this work. (Given how slowly health plans and CMS respond to technology changes, getting reimbursed for such monitoring could take quite a while.)
Meanwhile, it will be critical to educate consumers on the links between their behavior and their long-term health, and convince them to begin monitoring their health with these devices.
They'll also have to accept that in a connected health world, doctors will know what they do, and are likely to call them on it if they forgo exercise or otherwise avoid healthful behaviors. This new level of intimacy with doctors will be difficult for some patients to tolerate.
But over time, it's becoming increasingly clear that DHWs will become commonplace, and patients both well and sick will accept their importance. In the meantime, it seems, the ball is in physicians', researchers' and digital health entrepreneurs' courts. Watching solutions emerge should prove exciting over the next few years.
Anne Zieger is a veteran journalist who’s been covering the U.S. healthcare scene for over 25 years. She provides “News with a Twist,” combining solid reporting with expert insights and analysis. Her opinions are her own. You can follow Anne on Twitter @annezieger.
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.