In Medical Wearables: A Product Designer Perspective Part I, I talked about initiatives to engender better healthcare via wearable medical technology, and how that could influence our lives.
The story of medical wearables is no different than the story of technology in general. Exponential growth in capability commensurate with the shrinking of size and cost of products is simply converging to a point that the costs of fielding preventative measures like wearables is a solid alternative to just waiting until something inside of us breaks and we are rushed to the emergency room. While medical wearables do offer great promise in helping us become more proactive in our healthcare, they are primarily data collection devices that may perform some rather simple data analysis. They will have to tie into a larger medical ecosystem that has yet to fully materialize.
Data is great, but it is not knowledge and certainly not a guaranteed medical prognosis. Medical wearables will allow us to become more engaged in our healthcare while also decreasing the burden on the healthcare system by reducing the number of doctor visits, especially for routine checkups and simple issues. But the healthcare system is a complex network of hospitals, first responders, insurance companies, clinics, pharmacies, and laboratories. Technology firms have attempted to build I.T.-based ecosystems before, with rather lackluster success. Google Health, the most famed failure from a consumer-focused perspective, was shuttered in 2012. Wearables won’t gain traction unless the data collected turns into meaningful action from our healthcare system.
Privacy of healthcare data is a significant concern given the potential consequences of having doctor-patient confidential information leaked to possible future employers and insurers. In addition, it is not inconceivable that unscrupulous medical companies might seek to profit of your health care data by selling it to pharmaceutical companies. Medical wearables with a consolidation of medical-related data wireless transfers could present an appetizing attack-vector for those who might seek to profit off of the theft of such information.
Lastly, while I have focused much of the attention on data collection and analysis aspects, it should be noted that there is also potential for serious life-safety concerns in dealing with future medical wearables. Early in 2015, medical devices manufacturer Amgen announced their Neulesta Delivery Kit which is an automated, wearable, on-body injector system that delivers medicine to post-chemotherapy patients to help fight off infections. The system allows for patients to receive the potentially lifesaving medicine without a visit to the hospital every day following chemotherapy treatment. If such devices were to eventually merge with the medical wearables that have Internet connectivity, then I.T. security would be an even larger concern given the fact that if hacked, a device could be overridden to either not deliver the needed medicine or to deliver the wrong dosage. While security for this is not an insurmountable challenge, it is one that would carry great scrutiny from regulators and society at large.
A Brave, New World
Very few would argue against the fact that healthcare costs are in desperate need of being reigned in as some countries face an increasingly aged population. Technology, specifically medical wearables, offers great promise in reducing the demand on healthcare infrastructure. First, we will have to navigate a significant amount of technological challenges, regulatory hurdles, and societal distrust to achieve a more manageable health care bill if we are going to rely on wearables to help serve as a critical line of medical care. If we are successful, then we will be able to free up a great deal of financial resources that can be put towards solving other big challenges.
Michael Parks, P.E. is the owner of Green Shoe Garage, a custom electronics design studio and technology consultancy located in Southern Maryland. He produces the S.T.E.A.M. Power podcast to help raise public awareness of technical and scientific matters. Michael is also a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Maryland and holds a Master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
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