Walk down the electronics aisle of pretty much any big-box store in America and you will be inundated with wearable tech devices that can tell you how many steps you’ve taken, how many calories eaten or how many you’ll burn by taking the stairs instead of the elevator. But at their core, cool technology aside, all the Fitbits, Jawbones, Basis bands and many other brand names out there do one thing: collect data.
And to what end? Sure, fitness aficionados and pro athletes rely on advanced data to determine if their workout plans are up to par. But for the average user, perhaps someone who picked it up as part of a New Year’s resolution to get fit, what is the end result beyond being able to rationalize having that piece of cake after dinner because you walked that extra 500 steps today?
Right now, there’s really nothing to be done with all the terabytes of data constantly streaming into the cloud from these devices. I agree with Ron Miller—when it comes to big data, “there is still a huge gap between expectations and results.” There isn’t a solid plan for how to use all the collected data.
And the answer is pretty obvious, I think.
Next Step: Med-Tech
Having the ability to track a person’s pulse, respiration and blood pressure would seem to obviously direct us toward using that data to improve quality of life. Not just for athletes or tech-savvy early adopters, but for EVERYONE—particularly those with chronic illnesses. Most recently, Genentech struck a $60m deal with 23andMe to tap into their vast amount of DNA data. And look at what is currently happening in England, with the Human Genome Mapping project. Using multiple facilities, the plan there is to map out the genomes of 100,000 people as a way to look for baseline genetic markers and other indicators of potential problems.
Imagine what could happen if we married the vast data resource comprised of billions of humans with wearable tech?
Imagine it monitoring for signs and symptoms for which the wearer may have a genetic tendency. Your smartwatch (knowing that your genetic markers predispose you for a stroke) warns you that your blood pressure has gone up over the past few months and recommends a preventative doctor’s visit to take a look. That alone could save your life.
Or for those with chronic issues that require frequent medical visits for baseline testing, a wearable device could conduct the test at home, upload the data to the cloud, and the doctor would be able to download and examine the information—all without having to schedule a visit. This could result in a massive savings of time and money. And given the cost of healthcare in the U.S., dropping prices can only be a good thing.
So what’s stopping it?
Many healthcare officials are already on board with jumping on the wearable craze as a means of predictive modeling of medical behaviors. Where the wheels come off though is in the numerous tangible and intangible problems surrounding any new technology.
- Regulatory agencies – Federal guidelines are extremely tight when it comes to patient confidentiality, safety and security. In a Wired article, J.C. Herz talked about this very issue and the difficulties in navigating FDA, HIPAA and other agencies in getting medical technologies approved. Add to THAT the torturous effort required integrate any new software system with medical archives that have been around for decades – and you have a recipe for failure.
- Price point – As has been mentioned, the majority of those using Nike+, Fitbit and others are primarily Tech aficionados or athletes. Most of these fall into a certain socio-economic sector as well. Which means that those who most could benefit from having wearable medical tech won’t be able to afford it. Designing these wearables is already pricey – add in the dollars that would have to be spent navigating Point 1 (above) and any sort of useful tech will be priced out of the market.
- Privacy/Security – This is an entirely different point than HIPAA. Hollywood stars (and regular folks) have had their nude photos hacked and spread around the internet. Sony and Microsoft both had their gaming consoles go dark on Christmas Eve due to a denial of service attack. This lack of safety becomes even more important when it is critical medical data. What if data points are hacked and changed, convincing a doctor that a different course of treatment is needed? Or a person’s medical history is leaked to the public?
What to do?
The answer is at once extremely difficult and maddeningly simple. Keep moving forward. Yes, there will be costs, hurdles and setbacks. But the overall good that could be done means getting to a point where wearable tech doesn’t just provide an uptick in quality of life across all socioeconomic strata – it prolongs life.
A majority of dollars spent on healthcare each year is allocated to chronic health issues. Finding ways to better manage these concerns, while at the same time cutting down on overall healthcare costs and heading off potential medical crises along the way seems like a goal worth pursuing. Don’t you think?
And regardless of where you land in YOUR thinking, as Engadget points out, it’s evident from the “maturity” of CES participants this year that the space is growing up and moving beyond its previous confines, with or without you! So although form is still very important—the game is quickly shifting to function. And, I predict, advances will be headed our way at a furious pace soon enough. Are you ready?