The future of wearable sensors in healthcare

iMedicalApps had the opportunity to attend the 2013 USC Body Computing Conference a few days ago. This week, we’ll share some of the highlights.

Three panel sessions at the Body Computing Conference were focused on Wearable Sensors and brought together thought leaders in the exploding mHealth segment.

Leading figures at Misfit Wearables, Basis Science, Samsung Health, Vancive, Jawbone/BodyMedia, Zephyr, Proteus, and various venture capital firms were all present to highlight their specific offerings and to comment on the rapidly-evolving space of wearable computing.

The panels were free-spirited and even lighthearted at times, but also provided unique insight from within the industry. Here’s a brief summary of some takeaways from the various panels. You can continue the dialogue in the comments section below.

The Distinction Between Consumer-Oriented and Medical-Grade Sensors

  • Intentionally or not, the two primary panels were split between companies that are focused on the consumer market (Misfit Wearables, Basis, BodyMedia/Jawbone, and Samsung) and companies approaching sensors from a health care perspective (Zephyr, Medtronic, AliveCor).
  • A question on the differences between the two panels was raised: Brian Russell, co-founder and CEO of Zephyr, quipped “This panel [Medical-Grade Sensor Companies] has to be cooler, and your panel [Consumer Sensors] has to get more accurate.” This succinctness stunned the attendees, but the veracity of the statement resonated with most.

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Variety of Form Factors

  • Among the companies present, sensor devices of all types were represented: wrist-based watches, implanted monitors, skin patches, clips, domes for the head, and even digestible pill-based sensors. While most were permanent options, some were disposable such as the Vancive Metria and BodyMedia VUE. They wanted to provide a lower cost and/or trial-based option. This variety is vital for catering to the unique needs and conditions for each user. The multitude of form factors even led Misfit Wearables co-founder Sonny Vu to jokingly ask one of the panels, “tattoos, really?” (in regards to MC10’s BioStamp).

Involving and Motivating the 90%

  • One of the most oft-repeated themes of the night was the question of how to get the majority of the population that are NOT active and innately self-vigilant to buy into the Quantified Self movement, despite the fact that they would likely have the most to gain. Marco Della Torre, VP of Product Science at Basis Science, noted that 80% of health app users abandon the apps within 2 weeks.
  • One consensus solution is to provide a variety of options, both in form factor (described above) and marketing avenues (health clubs, retail, medical, etc). Another popular suggestion was the need to create an experience that compels the user to want to grow their interaction with the device, whether via gamification or involving the surroundings with the user’s health statistics (e.g. changing the type of music or lighting in the room in response to heart rate).
  • While the need to engage the masses was clearly identified, a concrete action-plan still remains the holy grail for this market.

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Going Beyond the Numbers

  • With so many innovations in wearable fitness, the sheer quantity of data can be staggering. Euan Thomson, Operating Partner at Khosla Ventures, pointed out that these sensors can detect up to 55 million data points over a single 24 hour period.
  • The limitations are not only regarding the number of data points, but the fact that these data points are often difficult to interpret without additional information about their context and surrounding. For example, is the patient exercising, sleeping, eating, etc? There needs to be better methods of interpreting all these variables in order to assist consumers and physicians in making positive changes to the way they live their lives.

What Role Should Physicians Play?

  • Up until this point, the exponentially growing hype around the Quantified Self movement has been primarily limited to the consumer market and those actively following mHealth. However, the clinical implications for wearable sensors are massive. In CHF and Diabetes management alone, wearable sensors can prevent hospital readmission and even prevent complications.
  • The obesity epidemic is best addressed with lifestyle changes, which can be facilitated by such devices. Wainwright Fishburn, partner for Cooley LLC (a VC firm), clearly stated “a lot of digital health is going to be about elevating the role of the doctor so that they play more of an important role.”
  • Others were less convinced about the role of physicians, preferring a more organic and grassroots approach.

Is The Wearable Fitness Market Evidence-Based? Should It Be?

  • One physician in the audience asked (during a question and answer session) about the lack of evidence to help convince physicians and third-party payers to jump on board, who have been indoctrinated into the necessity of randomized, placebo-controlled studies. While nobody denied the importance of the scientific method, Ivo Stivoric, co-founder of BodyMedia noted that the additional benefit of wearable tech is that they monitor “real-world” data in a form of “post-market surveillance”, rather than in a vacuum where compliance is regimented.
  • He added, “If it’s all pre-market, 100 subjects, that’s more noisy than a million people.”
  • Brian Russell agreed, pointing out that a wearable receiving medical clearance is much safer than a medication, and that statistical value lies after the fact, when sifting through the data with retrospective analysis.

As most of our readers are from the health field, we’d love to hear your input by continuing the dialog in the comments below on wearable sensors and medicine.

This article is part of iMedicalApps’ coverage of the 7th annual Body Computing Conference, hosted by the USC Body Computing Center, which took place on October 4th, 2013. The event showcases the cutting edge of digital health, in partnership with industry leaders and venture capitalists in biotechnology, telecommunications, entertainment, and design.  

Author:

David Ahn, MD (@AhnCall)

Former Staff Writer for iMedicalApps, he is a senior Endocrinology fellow at UC San Diego. He primarily covered Diabetes, Fitness/Metabolism, and wearable technology. David is now working on Sugar Streak, a smartphone and watch app for Diabetes.

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