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Next generation wearables set to transform patient care

Article-Next generation wearables set to transform patient care

CanvaPro smart wearables
Advanced wearables may be the ideal solution to address the rising burden of chronic diseases.

In the past few years, wearables have carved out a significant space for themselves as they have evolved from promoting wellness to strengthening lives and outcomes. The COVID pandemic has played a pivotal role in accelerating the demand for wearable devices as more people have recognised the importance of assessing and monitoring their health remotely using these devices. An estimated 1.1 billion users worldwide used wearables in 2022, which is expected to increase further and help in offering global healthcare cost savings of US$200 billion in the near future.

As wearables grow in popularity, the devices are witnessing drastic changes to their form and making them an intricate part of our daily lives. Rather than looking like a watch, or fitness band, the next generation wearables are taking the form of clothing, headsets, or unobtrusive skin patches. Furthermore, aside from diverse form factors, these devices are incorporating different components such as various sensing technologies including electrochemical sensors and colorimetric sensors, artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML) algorithms, ultrasound transducers, electrodes, and drug delivery mechanisms.

This integration of sophisticated components has allowed next generation wearables to offer continuous and long-term health monitoring as well as on-demand therapy as compared to just tracking steps taken or calories burned provided by the earlier generation wearables. With individuals becoming more tech-savvy coupled with heightened health awareness levels, there is an increased demand for devices that can monitor the user's health, provide insights, and also improve health outcomes.

The next generation wearables are making deeper inroads in our lives and in the process drastically changing the healthcare landscape. By personalised, moment-to-moment health analysis, individuals can detect clinical deterioration in early stages and subsequently take proactive steps to prevent them from occurring. Clinicians can remotely monitor their patients’ health data, resulting in fewer in-person visits while allowing them to optimise their workloads. Furthermore, remote monitoring of patients’ vitals also minimises hospital readmissions, thus reducing healthcare costs for the providers. The high burden of chronic diseases responsible for causing 74 per cent of all annual deaths globally is creating an urgent need for a more decentralised healthcare system and the next generation wearables seem to be the ideal solution to address this need owing to their ever-increasing applications in patient monitoring, diagnostics, and therapeutics.

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Next generation wearables as tools for monitoring and therapy

Improved disease monitoring

Next generation wearables such as skin patches or clothing embedded with multiple sensors are being used to monitor parameters such as heart rate, body temperature, as well as levels of different body analytes. The data generated by these sensors is then analysed by AI/ML algorithms to provide insights into an individual's health status. Through the use of gentle nudges and personalised notifications, these devices are enabling positive behavioural changes in users by motivating them to maintain healthy lifestyles, facilitating nutritional modifications, and encouraging them to get adequate sleep.

This continuous engagement is transforming the value of health among individuals from a periodic concern to a day-to-day commitment, emphasising the importance of proactive measures over reactive interventions. For example, RDS SAS, has developed a multi-sensor wearable patch to continuously monitor levels of vitals such as heart rate, skin temperature, and respiration rate in patients and provide notifications about the early signs of clinical deterioration to the individuals and enable clinical actions to be taken for improving their health.

Body conformable skin patches are also being evaluated for continuous monitoring of wound healing status in the patients. For instance, researchers at the National University of Singapore have developed a paper-thin skin patch that can continuously track different wound biomarkers with 97 per cent accuracy to determine if the wounds are healing properly and detect wound infections. The skin patch can significantly improve the quality of wound care and prevent incremental treatment costs for the patients.

Wearable ultrasound monitors, in the form of patches, are being developed that can image organs within the body, such as the heart, kidneys, or bladder, without the need for an ultrasound operator. The ability of the wearable ultrasound patches to remain adhered to the skin while enabling continuous imaging has facilitated their use in areas including assessment of cardiac health, monitoring foetal growth, diagnosing musculoskeletal injuries, and early detection of anomalies, including cancer. Pulsify Medical has developed an ultrasound skin patch for continuously and accurately measuring and monitoring an individual’s cardiac performance, including cardiac output, on a long-term basis.

Therapeutics through Next Gen Wearables

Neuromodulation therapy

Through use of neuromodulation, next generation wearables in the form of headsets, sleeves, socks, and ankle-worn garments are playing a pivotal role in the effective management of chronic conditions such as mental disorders, chronic pain, urological and neurological conditions. The devices use neuromodulation technologies such as transcranial direct current stimulation and peripheral neurostimulation for selectively stimulating specific brain regions as well as nerve pathways to enhance cognitive function, modulate psychiatric symptoms, control bladder functions, and reduce pain. These devices also incorporate sensors for detecting noxious nerve signals and accordingly deliver adaptive personalised stimulation using AI algorithms that are customised to the patients’ needs.

Drug delivery

Wearable drug patches that facilitate subcutaneous drug delivery through use of dissolvable microneedles or ultrasonic waves are emerging as a pain-free method for drug administration. Delivering drugs through the skin is an appealing route for drug administration as it enables good drug bioavailability which is essentially useful for wound healing, pain relief, and treatment of skin cancers. Furthermore, subcutaneous drug delivery offers less systemic toxicity and is more local, comfortable, and controllable. For example, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing a wearable patch that uses ultrasonic waves for targeted, painless drug delivery through the skin for treating a variety of skin conditions.

Current roadblocks and the path ahead

Concerns related to unauthorised access to patients’ health data can significantly impact the adoption of next generation wearables. Insecure wireless connectivity as well as cloud storage of patients’ vital information can make them vulnerable to cyberattacks. Use of multi-layer security framework in the next generation wearables that uses automated tools to quickly detect any potential attempts to gain unauthorised access to patients’ data or device controls can help in preventing sophisticated attacks. Furthermore, deployment of wearable biometric security that allows only authorised users to access patients’ data or device functions using their unique physiological characteristics can also help in reducing cybersecurity risks.

Issues related to limited battery life are preventing the use of these devices for longer durations. To overcome this challenge, deployment of different energy harvesting mechanisms such as triboelectric energy, or biofuel that can harness energy from different sources including patients’ motion, or body fluids can be considered to power these devices. Researchers at the University of North Texas have developed a wearable sensor that generates electrical energy when bodily fluids repeatedly come into contact with a charged electrode that is, in turn, used to power the device. The shift towards battery-free, self-powered, next generation wearables will truly be a game changer as they will address some of the pertinent issues faced by users such as the battery dying at inconvenient times or the hassle of regularly charging them.

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Key growth opportunities for next generation wearables

Since the next generation wearables space is highly competitive, and constantly evolving, it is essential that the developers adopt a sustainable monetisation model that drives recurring revenues. Wearable companies can focus on shifting from the current hardware sale model to recurring revenue models like subscriptions related to wearables’ premium features such as advanced analytics, and personalised coaching, which can deliver more consistent and reliable revenue streams for them.

Through the use of predictive analytics, past and current patient health data obtained from these devices can be used to gain a comprehensive understanding of disease patterns, population health trends, and treatment outcomes. This vital information can be used by the government to draft proactive public health measures and evidence-based healthcare policies in order to effectively tackle future epidemics. Furthermore, the digital biomarkers generated from the next generation wearables can be used by healthcare providers to predict patient readmissions and accordingly deliver appropriate therapies for given patients at the appropriate time. Payers can employ digital biomarkers to further stratify patients and build personalised treatment plans, including prior authorisation schedules.

Device manufacturers should also partner with health insurance companies to offer discounts on health insurance premiums or other incentives to patients using these devices. This approach offers a win-win deal for the patients as they save on health insurance premiums while also maintaining good health.

Concluding thoughts: ushering personalised, holistic healthcare through next generation wearables

At present, next generation wearables are empowering patients with knowledge, tools, to improve their health. They are also aiding healthcare professionals in the early detection of diseases, enabling them to provide timely, personalised treatments to patients. In the future, they will cease to be mere devices and will act as catalysts of global healthcare renaissance, heralding an era of proactive and effective health management.

Neeraj Nitin Jadhav is an Industry Analyst, TechVision, Frost & Sullivan.

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