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A Quick Guide to Wearable Health Technology
By 2025, sales of wearable health tracking devices are expected to top $60 billion, and some experts predict that “smart” wearables in the form of watches, jewelry and even glasses and scarves can lead to a savings of around $200 billion in healthcare costs worldwide.
Wearable health technologies range from fitness and wellness trackers for general use to sophisticated, medical grade devices for monitoring specific health conditions – and some devices have applications in both worlds. With a combination of on-device sensors, artificial intelligence and cloud based data, today’s wearable wellness devices track metrics such as heart rate, blood pressure and movement to help people get fit and stay healthy.
What Are Wearable Wellness Devices?
Health and wellness trackers have been in use for years, but until recently they’ve largely been confined to healthcare settings. Now, though, the rapid evolution of consumer digital technologies and the growth of the Internet of Things are making wearable devices smaller, less expensive, and easier to use than ever.
From the ubiquitous Fitbit to a wearable EKG monitor prescribed by a doctor, most health-related wearables share some general features. A sensor equipped, AI-powered device is worn in direct contact with some part of the body. As long as it’s worn, the device tracks specific metrics related to its purpose.
Wearables typically work with a cloud-based platform that stores and organizes data transmitted by the device, and an app that allows users to access the raw data as well as reports, insights and other relevant information. Depending on the purpose of the device, its accompanying app might also include a wide range of extra features such as health and wellness articles, inspirational quotes, or access to a community of other users, coaches or health experts.
Wearers can share their data with friends, family or healthcare providers using a variety of channels ranging from the usual social media networks to dedicated healthcare portals only providers can access.
Wearable Tech Comes in Many Forms
Today’s wearable wellness tech is made possible by the Internet of Things – a worldwide digital ecosystem that’s made up of billions of constantly connected devices sharing information, making decisions and taking action, often with no human intervention at all. In the world of IoT, just about any device can be equipped with the sophisticated, AI-driven sensors that collect and deliver data to the cloud. Those technologies make it possible to create wearable health and fitness monitors in a variety of forms – and to hide their tracking functions from view with styling that resembles jewelry and other fashion accessories.
“Smart” watches are actually mini computers worn on the wrist. While they do tell time, they have a host of other features as well – and for some, such as the Apple Watch, that includes fitness and wellness tracking. Users can connect the fitness functions to an app that manages the data and delivers reports.
General Fitness and Wellness Trackers
Many wearable fitness and wellness trackers, such as the Fitbit, are designed to resemble smartwatches. They’re worn on the wrist, and display their metrics on a watch-style face, but they’re dedicated exclusively to tracking things like heart rate, heart variability and movement. Some focus on a particular function, such as sleep or exercise.
Some wearable health monitors are designed to look like jewelry, with their sensors and displays completely hidden behind a stylish veneer. Bellabeat’s line of jewelry-inspired wellness trackers can be worn as a pendant, bracelet or clip, with no outward indication of their monitoring functions. Bellabeat aims its products at women, with special functions for tracking cycles, fertility and pregnancy.
Smart rings, like smart watches, can have a number of functions that are unrelated to health, such as managing passwords and opening locks securely. But a growing number of smart rings are designed just for wellness tracking. Devices such as the Oura Ring carry sensors on the inside of a band made of titanium in colors such as silver and rose gold, with functions including heart rate, movement and sleep tracking.
Scarves, Glasses and More Smart Wearables
Innovative technologies that make sensors smaller and smarter than ever also make it possible to add tracking functions to other kinds of things people wear and use. The Bioscarf is a “smart” scarf designed to filter out virtually all airborne pollutants. Smart glasses allow users to access computer functions from their eyewear as well as to adjust levels of brightness and focus, or to add elements of augmented reality to the view. Earwear, an enhanced version of the traditional “hearing aid,” can filter and augment sounds for better hearing, and also report on a variety of wellness metrics.
Other, more medically focused wellness wearables include soft patches such as BioPatch, which are placed on the body to record temperature, heart rate and other vital signs. The recently developed SmartSleep wearable is a soft headband whose sensors record sleep patterns and also emit audio tones that encourage sleep. And while they aren’t technically wearable, handheld EKG trackers such as AliveCor’s Personal EKG can record heart rhythms in seconds and deliver the data via smartphone to healthcare providers at any location.
From Consumers to Hospitals: Tracking Important Metrics for Health
Some wearable health devices, such as the Personal EKG, are medical products designed for tracking specific metrics related to managing a disease or condition, so they aren’t typically used by consumers who are simply interested in pursuing a healthier lifestyle. Many of these devices and the apps they work with are called “digiceuticals” – digital pharmaceuticals, or technologies used for therapeutic purposes.
But even consumer-level fitness and wellness devices can help users and their healthcare providers manage ongoing health conditions. Since the data captured by most wearable devices can be shared with anyone, users can stream it to a dedicated healthcare portal to provide doctors with accurate, detailed information that can help to shape treatment plans and interventions.
Choosing the Best Wearable
You don’t have to have a health condition to benefit from today’s wearable health technologies. About one in five adult Americans has used a wearable device for health and fitness, and most of them are simply seeking support for their own journey toward better health.
Most wearable health trackers, even those used for medical purposes such as EKG recording, can be freely purchased without a prescription. But technologies that support the management of specific diseases and conditions, such as digiceuticals for people with diabetes or COPD, may need a doctor’s order.
Wearable health trackers come in a wide range of prices and functionality, too. Very inexpensive smartwatch-style fitness trackers can start at less than $50USD, while those with more features and support can cost $200 or more. Jewelry-style trackers like Bellabeat’s Leaf Urban and the Oura Ring are typically more expensive than other types of wearables. One version of the Oura Ring retails for $999, but less expensive smart rings are available for under $100 as well.
With the exception of basic fitness trackers that simply display metrics like heart rate or temperature on-screen, wearable health devices typically rely on a cloud-based app that interfaces between the device and the data it returns to the user. Those apps and the services they offer can be an important factor in choosing the right wearable. Some provide an easy way to display and make sense of the device’s data, while others offer full-featured support for fitness and wellness goals such as weight loss, better sleep or exercise.
Interoperability is another factor in choosing the right wearable. All devices work with their own proprietary apps, but many are also designed to interface with other consumer platforms such as Apple Health or with a doctor’s patient portal. Apps for some consumer-grade fitness trackers can even be purchased from general app stores such as Google Playstore. Digiceuticals for medical uses typically work with therapeutic apps designed especially to support people managing an ongoing health issue.
The Future Holds More Wearables
In the new world of wearable health technologies, there’s a device and a system for just about every need and every wallet. And more are coming. The market for health and wellness wearables is constantly expanding, as innovators around the world work to add AI-enhanced tracking technologies to just about anything that can be worn. Innovations on the horizon range from shoes that can track steps and gait in order to detect neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, and smart swimsuits that can tell wearers when it’s time to put on sunscreen.
A recent study predicts that by 2022, up to 900 million people worldwide will be using wearable health trackers connected by the Internet of Things. As the demand for wearable health technologies continues to grow, more of the things we wear and use every day will become smart partners in the quest for better health.
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