A Digital Checkup on Your Wrist
When it comes to monitoring your own health, “wearables”
and other consumer technologies are growing more sophisticated.
By Allan Richter
Calorie-intake monitors. Heart-rate trackers. Dehydration alerts. Inactivity measurements. Sleep trackers. UV-measuring wristbands.
With the ability to monitor our own health at so many levels you would think it won’t be long before we no longer need doctors. That’s a logical conclusion, given the array of often-wearable devices making health self-monitoring accessible and affordable. But it’s a conclusion that would probably be wrong, certainly in the near future.
For one thing, consumers aren’t well-equipped enough to make an accurate diagnosis.
According to Shawn DuBravac, PhD, author of Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Communicate (Regnery), Pew Research reported in 2013 that 59% of Americans have checked online for health information in the past year, with 35% saying they have used the Internet to self-diagnose.
Some 41% of those who made a self-diagnosis were accurate, as confirmed by physicians. Still, notes DuBravac, chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), that leaves six in ten Americans who incorrectly diagnose themselves.
Nonetheless, consumers will be able to monitor their own health and fitness—and, as caregivers, the wellness of their loved ones—in larger numbers. As DuBravac observes, the Internet has empowered consumers, or patients, with levels of data and health information that used to be unavailable, even as the field continues to evolve. As DuBravac puts it, “This is the hybrid period between the analog world we knew and the all-digital world we will soon find ourselves in.”
With baby boomers contributing to the aging population in greater numbers, the healthcare system practically demands other ways to keep up with the country’s diverse needs.
Though the ability of consumers to monitor and diagnose themselves won’t eliminate the need for healthcare providers, the growing self-monitoring health trend—coupled with communications technology—means geography will no longer factor into the choice of doctor that patients make, predicts Wes Henderek, director of the connected intelligence sector at the NPD Group, a Port Washington, New York, research firm.
“We’re never going to do away with doctors, but the overall healthcare model is going to change dramatically, not just as a result of the wearables, but overall technology,” Henderek says. “You’re going to see a shift where people aren’t going to go to doctors for regular checkups. It’s going to be more of an in-home consultation in which people collect their health data that’s fed real-time to their doctor, and they do a consultation via a video chat.”
That scenario gives people a “virtual doctor” of sorts, expanding their choices for medical care exponentially, Henderek says. “If all of a sudden you have virtual care where all your data is being collected by these various devices and you can do a video conference with your doctor, your pool of doctors becomes unlimited. It creates more competition in the market. Anytime that happens, that improves care across the board.”
Healthcare providers recognize the changes the consumer technologies are bringing. Last year, eight US family medicine organizations formed Family Medicine for America’s Health (fmahealth.org) to drive improvements to the healthcare system. One of the group’s mandates is to find a workable way to bridge the gap between the data that consumers collect on their wearable monitors and the ability of doctors to seamlessly collect and analyze the details in their offices’ electronic health record systems.
“It’s more of a chasm than a gap,” says Jennifer Brull, MD, a Plainville, Kansas, family physician who is helping to oversee research on how to integrate consumer technology with doctors’ medical systems for FMAH.
“If I had all of my patients send me how many steps they took every day, that information would probably not be terribly helpful. But if instead we had some way of looking at all of that data and alerting me when there is a change in status, say, for a person who is normally very good at walking 10,000 steps a day and that suddenly drops to 1,000 steps a day, then I can immediately engage with them and see if there is something they are struggling with.
“Filtering out the information that is just noise—that is the big goal,” Brull says.
Consumers overwhelmingly prefer fitness-specific devices over smartwatches that are marketed as multifunction devices for a broad consumer audience, according to NPD Group data. While 10% of US adults own a fitness tracker, only 2% of the population owns a smartwatch, according to NPD’s Connected Intelligence Consumers and Wearables Report, released in January.
The two types of technologies appeal to much different consumer segments, the report said. More than two-thirds of fitness tracker owners in the US are 35 or older, 41% had an average income of more than $100,000, and 54% were women. In contrast, more than two-thirds of smartwatch owners are 18 to 34 years old, skew mostly toward men (71%), and nearly half (48%) had an income below $45,000.
NPD expects smartwatch ownership to grow more quickly over the next year, but there will remain a distinct market for the fitness tracker because of its small size, relatively long battery life and focus on one specific use, says NPD analyst Henderek. “There is no ‘average’ consumer for the wearables market; the fitness tracker and smartwatch target consumer are fundamentally different,” Henderek notes.
The Apple Watch, announced by the technology giant last year and expected to be released next month, could help boost the smartwatch category. Through its announcement, Apple has made people more aware of smartwatches than fitness trackers, Henderek says, even though the latter category greatly outsells the former.
Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has said that health will be one of the big selling points of the Apple Watch. “If I sit for too long, it will actually tap me on the wrist to remind me to get up and move, because a lot of doctors think sitting is the new cancer,” Cook said at last month’s Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet conference.
“Ten minutes before the hour, it will remind you to move. We have a lot of people using the Apple Watch at Apple, and 10 minutes before the hour, suddenly they all get up and move. It took a little to get used to, but it’s great.”
This year consumers can expect to see an increasing blurring of the line between smartwatches and fitness trackers as makers of the latter products pack more high-end features into them, Henderek says, making them multifunctional. The analyst already observed at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that many fitness trackers were equipped with a function allowing users to track their sleep patterns to see the quality of their sleep.
Henderek also expects to see fitness trackers that allow the monitoring of stress and anxiety through the measurement of breathing patterns and heart rate, bringing them closer to what he terms “total wellness solutions.”
The market for wearable self-monitoring devices will evolve from being “descriptive” to “prescriptive,” says Ramon Llamas, research manager with the wearables and mobile phones analyst team at the research firm International Data Corp. (IDC) in Framingham, Massachusetts.
“Where we’ve been is really just scratching the surface. We’ve done a really good job of saying, ‘This is your past.’ We’re very descriptive—how many paces you’ve taken, how many calories you burned, how well you slept last night,” Llamas says.
The fitness wearables on the market now give users current data. “It tells us where we are at a given point in time, particularly the current point in time; that’s what we want to see,” Llamas says. “But then moving forward I fully expect wearables to predict your future a little bit more. For instance, there’s a company in the Bay area; it’s called Gero. It will take all your historical information and say, based on all that, you are a candidate for a long-term health disease. I’d rather know that in my 40s than in my 60s, when it will be a lot more difficult to adjust that.
“Or let’s take something more short-term. My wearable might tell me, ‘You’re going to catch the flu in two days. Down some orange juice, take something and head it off at the pass, before it becomes full-blown.’ There’s value in that. It’s on its way.”
Fitness trackers, perhaps reflecting their popularity among women, are becoming sleeker and more fashionable as more device manufacturers strike partnerships with jewelry and fashion companies, observes NPD’s Henderek, who points to the partnership between Swarovski and Misfit, a Burlingame, California, fitness wearable maker. Henderek expects many more similar partnerships this year as fitness tracker makers target specific demographics.
Unlike the fitness trackers, Henderek observes, smartwatch manufacturers exhibiting their wares at CES were unable to display any so-called killer applications that could help propel that market segment. Instead of presenting such an attention-grabbing application, smartwatch makers packed more features and functions in their products: cellular capabilities, music and better screens, for example.
Traditional watchmakers still have not dived into the smartwatch segment. Because it could be tough for them to do so individually at this point, Henderek expects them to develop partnerships with other manufacturers this year to make their mark in the tech category.
Of course, wearable technology comes in many other forms besides that worn around the wrist, albeit the dominant form. Sensors added to clothing can improve athletic performance by analyzing golf swings or the timing and angle of basketball shots, for instance, and they can measure performance to help prevent injuries.
At the Consumer Electronics Show, Karch Kiraly, who as head coach of the US Women’s National Volleyball Team led the team to their first World Championship last fall, was signing autographs at the booth of MyVert, maker of Vert, a device that measures your jump and transmits the data to a smart phone or tablet. An athlete wears a Vert near the waist either by a clip or integrated within an article
“There’s a really big population of girls and boys, but especially girls, that plays volleyball, a junior population, mostly ages 13 through 18, who aspires to…play and represent their college team,” Kiraly said in an interview between signing posters.
“And so they play a lot of volleyball in lots of tournaments over that time.
“They do lots of training, and I think from a long-term standpoint and keeping them healthy it’s probably going to be good to get lots more data on what kind of work they do over the course of time, how many hours and how many jumps they log.”
A common knee injury in many sports, especially for women because of their hip angles, is a sprained anterior cruciate ligament that could be avoided if player activity is tracked over time to show trends, Kiraly says. Shoulder injuries can be avoided in a similar manner.
Drones, a growing segment of consumer electronics, are driving self-monitoring of another kind—photography—among outdoor fitness buffs. Known in the news for their military use, drones are used commercially to take flight and video or photograph what’s going on below. Consumer fitness enthusiasts are using drones to video themselves swim, play golf and tackle other sports, says Brian Eble, marketing director at Revell, the maker of Hobbico drones. “We’re finding that a lot of people are using them for biking,” Eble says.
Someday, those bikers’ progress may end up on the computer screens and other electronics systems of their doctors. Until those more advanced applications take root, some doctors are finding more rudimentary ways to stay abreast of their patients via the fitness trackers and smartwatches.
Brull, the Kansas doctor, says that is a relatively easy task in her town
“It’s easy because my patients are my friends, and my friends are my patients,” says Brull, who, like many of her patients, uses a FitBit wearable fitness tracker. “With one patient,” Brull says, “we challenge each other every week to see who can get in the most steps.”