The increasing demand for personal biometrics devices has generated a booming market in wearable technology. Fitness trackers like Fitbit and other health-monitoring smartwatches are now mainstream, allowing people to track health metrics that they previously may have only been able to get with a visit to the doctor’s office. And while these devices are bringing personal health monitoring into the future, they also have tremendous applications and benefits in a healthcare setting. In this article, we'll go over the different types of health-oriented wearables and talk about how they can be used by both individuals and healthcare facilities, to improve patient care.
How Do Wearable Health Devices Work?
Wearable technology can be anything from a small electronic device to a smart patch applied directly to the skin. Thanks to advances in sensors and machine learning, they can help measure your breathing rate, temperature, blood pressure, blood oxygen, sleep quality, steps, location and more. These devices are also becoming more sophisticated, as some can track life-threatening symptoms of heart stroke, or low oxygen from COVID-19.
With extended data collection, these devices can also improve their ability to track stress, cognitive decline, and even detect early signs of illness. Each wearable health device contains sensors, which is how they track this data. The most typical sensors found in these devices include the pedometer, which tracks movement such as steps. These sensors also compare movements with your Basal Metabolic Rate to count calories you’ve burned and track how much you’re moving at night to monitor your sleeping pattern. With the watch conveniently located on the wrist, the optical heart rate sensor can monitor the flow of blood from the heart by calculating heartbeats per minute.
Different Types of Wearable Devices
With the growing demand for wearable technology, many devices are being developed for various use cases of health monitoring. Some devices, such as biosensors and smart patches, are often prescribed by healthcare professionals, while smartwatches and fitness trackers are marketed straight to consumers.
Wearable Fitness Trackers
Fitness trackers like the original Fitbit are one of the most popular forms of wearable technology. They consist of wristbands with sensors that track your heart rate, location and steps. They are often connected to an app on the user’s mobile phone, where they can see the data collected and use it to continuously meet their fitness goals.
Smart Health Watches
Smartwatches like the Apple Watch take the advancements of wearable technology to the next level. These watches, also worn on the wrist, not only track health data but allow users to perform tasks that they do on their phone, such as sending a message or making a phone call. On the health side, they track simple vital signs like the heart rate along with sleep monitoring, mental health tracking, movement reminders, and some can even monitor heart rhythm and blood oxygen levels.
Distinct from the consumer facing wearables, are wearable technologies specific to professional healthcare. For example, wearable ECG monitors measure electrocardiograms, which evaluates heart health. There are also biosensors like smart patches, that are a self-adhesive patch that collects data more accurately than a smart watch - such as movement, temperature and heart or respiratory rate. All this operates without the multitude of cables and wires required to hook a person up to a monitoring system, thus allowing health care workers to monitor patients 24/7, without actually seeing the patient. While they are typically medical grade, this could be what the future of consumer wearable technology looks like.
Benefits of Wearable Technology in Healthcare
As wearable health devices become increasingly accurate in their ability to monitor health and wellness, hospitals and patients can avoid long treatments and procedures. A study by Deloitte found that wearable technology can save the healthcare industry nearly $200 billion across all conditions over the next 25 years. Here are five key use cases for wearable devices, ranging from optimizing your pandemic response to making healthcare more accessible for patients.
During the pandemic, wearable technology has been an essential tool in allowing healthcare professionals to provide remote medical care and health monitoring. These devices help in outpatient and post-discharge care, chronic illness care and even allow for intervention before an illness becomes too serious. With hospital beds constantly filling up when new COVID-19 variants appear, remote healthcare relieves pressure off of medical staff, and it will likely become more common as healthcare becomes focused on automatic and real-time health monitoring.
Unburdening the Healthcare System
The gamified nature of wearable health tech motivates consumers to persist in their personal health goals and this has obvious benefits for the healthcare system as a whole. At a large scale, healthier patients equates to a reduction in hospital visits. This relieves pressure off the health system, allowing medical staff more time to see their patients and in turn improving the quality of patient care. The reduction in admissions reduces costs from extra staff and tests being run, and allows funds to be re-invested into patients, equipment and hospital facilities.
Wearable technology is becoming an accessible, low-cost option for healthcare. Individuals that are elderly, from low-income communities, or that suffer from chronic illnesses can benefit from the technology that allows them to be cared for year-round, without constant expensive doctor visits. Because health data can be sent to healthcare professionals in real-time, this data can be put on their health record, or they can be notified if their symptoms warrant a visit to the doctor. The more data is collected, the less likely they are to be looked over, or for their pain to be ignored, as they now have evidence of their symptoms.
Wearable Technology & Wayfinding
When combined with hospital wayfinding, wearable technologies can also improve safety for patients in hospitals. Wayfinding refers to information systems that guide people through indoor spaces - in this case indoor navigation in a hospital. Equipped with an indoor map, indoor navigation allows healthcare workers to navigate large hospitals with ease, find other doctors quickly and better take care of their patients.
These digitized maps also allow for map profiles, which ensure that whoever is using the map can only see parts of the map where they have permission. Hospitals can create multiple views of their map so what consumers see is different from what doctors see, and only the appropriate routes are available for the respective viewer. Thanks to safety zones created by geofencing, patients and visitors can receive alerts if they’re near a restricted area, which helps keep the hospital safe and secure.
Wearable devices can appear on the maps for hospital staff, allowing them to be accountable for their patients. By distinguishing staff from patients, alerts can be triggered when patients enter areas of the hospital that are off limits, such as surgery rooms, laboratories, contaminated areas, and, in some cases, when a patient inadvertently wanders out of the hospital building.
The combination of medical-grade wearable devices, mobile devices and location-based services has the potential to improve patient care and reduce costs in hospitals. Increased safety, patient monitoring, optimized navigation, and information security are just a few of the areas in which wearable devices make significant differences. The more data is integrated into apps and software, the more real-time solutions we’ll have to solve healthcare problems.
Learn how hospitals are using indoor mapping and location technology to enhance patient experiences
Updated February 4, 2022: This post was originally published on June 11th, 2015, updated January 1, 2019, and has been further updated to provide more information.