Wearables – Can They Be Reliable?

My wife bought me a Polar RS300x 5 years ago after a close friend of mine died of a sudden heart attack after running. He was young and fit and had a young daughter less than a year old and was just expecting a second one. I used it and its usefulness became apparent as I could see that while even doing a simple 2km run, I was stressing my heart beyond the recommended limit and I wasn’t even feeling it. It was a great tool and helped me understand my body better.

However, I could never use this tool and its results to tell my doctor about how my heart is performing and that its in good shape. It was just a simple heart rate monitor (with GPS and a lot of other cool functionality that captured data I could not submit as evidence to a medical professional)

So when I wrote about clinical agreement and wearables using the example of the Apple Watch a few weeks ago, I mentioned about the importance of the reliability and consistency in capturing and communicating health data to healthcare providers.

It is again of interest that I read an article mentioning that the Apple Watch will capture your heart rate every 10 mins but won’t record it when you’re in motion or your arm is moving. You can read the article on Engadget here and Apple’s site here. You can still measure your heart rate continuously but only when running the Workout app.

Presumably this is to ensure battery performance and it is understandable why this approach was taken. However, it means that:

1) A consistent measurement of your heart rate cannot be done (even with 10 min intervals) since arm movement is almost always happening – while talking, walking, eating and even typing. I think the only time when your arm is not moving is probably when you are sleeping or watching a movie. That makes the heart rate measurements at 10 min intervals (or less) meaningless and possibly even misleading.

2) Tracking of your heart rate will be limited to activity / exercise based monitoring (for example through the Workout app)

Given these understandable constraints, the promise of benefits of healthcare management through wearables are at best at cursory the surface level and at the other end, dangerous and misleading, because when capturing health related information, it requires devices that are specifically built to specifications that healthcare practitioners can rely upon.

Wearables at this stage of development appears to be consumer based fashion devices that try to double up as a healthcare management tool. To truly revolutionise wearables and its applications we need to address:

1) Battery life.

The use of devices that capture healthcare information cannot be limited by battery life. They need to be able to capture, store and transmit information consistently over the daily routine of the patient.

2) Reliability, Accuracy and Consistency

The device must be able to to measure and capture information reliably across different segments of the population and not be limited. An example of this is where Apple Watch does not work with people who have tattoos on their wrists. With data that is accurate, reliable and consistent, this data would then be usable by the medical professionals to then truly transform healthcare management by reducing the cost of information capture.

3) Fashion, Size and Fit

The device must be an integral part of fashion and I think Google’s Project Jacquard is a great step in the right direction. Market forces that drive demand and encourage the supply of wearables will enable alot more people to adopt the technology and thus drive further innovations (better bio-data measurement capabilities) in healthcare wearables.

IoT and the ability to capture information from everyday devices to transform healthcare is a very real and tangible future we can all look forward to – and it is coming.

I am excited about it having seen the benefits from my RS300x 🙂

Would love to hear your thoughts and comments


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