Can Medical Research Benefit from the Wearable Revolution?

There’s no doubt about it: wearable technology is in. From brightly-coloured step counters such as Fitbits to a plethora of health apps available for the iWatch, it’s hard to avoid the sudden craze for body-monitoring technologies.

A study by Forbes shows that 71% of 16 to 24-year-olds use or are interested in using wearable devices. From a research perspective, this means that a huge percentage of people are now creating constant streams of medical data of their own volition. But just how valuable is this data? And how can the healthcare sector harness its power?

A new era for healthcare?

Perhaps surprisingly, the industry’s first reaction to the swarms of young people suddenly volunteering medical information is one of puzzlement. Many doctors are sceptical about the validity of the data produced by Neil Sehgal, a senior research scientist at the UCSF Center for Digital Health Innovation, told Technology Review that “clinicians can’t do a lot with the number of steps you’ve taken in a day,” backing up this somewhat disappointing claim with a study showing that very few devices on the market perform with the reliability of a medical-grade device.

It is simply too early in the game to predict whether heart monitors such as Fitbit or purported seizure-monitoring and stress-managing technology such as the Empatica Embrace wristband will become reliable enough to be used as part of a prescribed management program for chronic conditions. Some estimates predict that it will take at least two years for these technologies and the data that they generate to meet the rigorous FDA standards for clinical use, and even then the validity of their results may still be less than that of data from medical-grade sensors

A future for clinical trials

Once this degree of reliability is achieved, there could be a bright future for wearable devices in clinical trials. In fact, a 2015 study by Bloomberg showed that 299 studies had already incorporated wearables into their data collection. While current studies of sleep, movement and stress often take place in a clinical setting or involve cumbersome and invasive technologies, wearable technology is already being used in everyday situations, discrete enough to be worn for work, play and even sleep. The potential of these fashionable devices lies in their inconspicuousness, giving us access to an entirely un-simulated world of responses to the everyday, and an unrivalled ecological validity.

The question of quality data

One of the biggest questions that this raises is how we will ensure the value and validity of the data collected, to draw reasonable and contextualised conclusions from it. The uncontrolled atmosphere of a of a trial incorporating devices available on the high street may lead to significant adherence variability such as subjects removing devices for a period of time, or transferring devices to other people. When designing a wearable device-based trial, healthcare professionals will need to work together to define standardised practices for promoting standard use, collecting and storing the data from devices, and ensuring data privacy.

Is it likely that wearable technology will ever entirely supersede traditional medical research? No. However, it could become a valuable tool to use in conjunction with more traditionally recognised methods in cases such as pharmaceutical trials. Alongside subjects’ own reports and data collected in a clinical environment, data collected from wearable devices may offer contextualisation, allowing researchers to analyse clinical data in a new and more relevant light.

The bigger picture for wearable tech

Stepping back from the specifics of research methodology, something that health professionals can agree on is wearable technology’s potential for reducing healthcare costs. By engaging patients on a personal level and encouraging them to monitor their own activity, wearable devices are contributing to a culture of health awareness, allowing users to take responsibility for their own fitness and prevent potential problems.

On a wider level, wearables can assist with a general awareness of trends among different populations. This newly available data, allows for far larger sample groups, and thus greater variation in gender, ethnicity, location, and economic situations. This will in turn allow for population-specific healthcare programs and better preventative care.

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