Can Wearables Get People Off the Couch?

July 16, 2019

Andrew Baker  By: Andrew Baker
 Managing Director, Industrial & Healthcare Business Unit, Maxim Integrated 


Globally, spending on healthcare is on track to top US$10 trillion by 2022—a huge economic impact. Being on the healthcare team of a technology company, my Maxim colleagues and I are always looking at ways to mitigate this cost. A lot of it starts by making advancements in wellness programs and getting people off the couch. This is where wearables can help.

Wearable devices deliver continuous, real-time monitoring of various vitals, such as heart rate (including heart-rate variability), blood-oxygen level, body temperature, stress levels, and sleep patterns. Clothing, chest straps, watches, earbuds, and jewelry are just some of the wearable form factors that have emerged in recent years. So, the capabilities are there for consumers, along with convenient ways to tap into them.

How can we encourage the mass adoption of wearables that could contribute to better health and fitness outcomes?

This was one of the questions I discussed earlier this year during a panel at the Firstbeat HRV Summit in Helsinki, Finland. The summit brought together experts from around the world to explore how the insights derived from heart-rate variability measurements could be applied to areas including consumer technology, elite sports, and wellness programs. On the panel, I was joined by a fitness blogger, a market researcher, and a running coach to discuss future trends in the wearables space.

Andrew Baker talking to Firstbeat CEO Joni KettunenThe author, Andrew Baker, is on the left, talking to Firstbeat CEO Joni Kettunen during the conference. Photo courtesy of Firstbeat & Akifoto.

Encouraging Mass Adoption of Wearables

Maxim places a lot of focus on emerging use cases and on ways to solve big worldwide or macro-economic problems. With healthcare costs spiraling higher and higher, wearables could provide an answer. Insights derived from these devices can motivate people to more proactively engage in preventive care activities, more closely manage chronic conditions, and take action when red flags are discovered. According a study by Juniper Research, the healthcare wearables market could reach $60 billion by 2023, with five million people being monitored remotely by healthcare providers by that year. While sales appear to be brisk, these numbers won’t make a difference in health and fitness outcomes if people don’t actually wear the devices regularly.

While there may not be a magic formula to trigger mass adoption of wearables, encouraging regular usage does call for the devices to be:

  • Passive and transparent to use. Measurements and monitoring must happen automatically and in the background. If, for example, the device requires the user to touch their finger to it to trigger a measurement, there’s a good chance the user won’t continue to do it for very long.
  • Comfortable and convenient to wear. Many of the form factors currently available address this. The key is to ensure their accuracy (or, rather, that of the biosensors inside). For example, accurately measuring vital signs from the wrist is challenging because the blood vessels there are deeper and generally less perfused than in other parts of the body (e.g. finger). Designers must also factor in parameters such as skin tone and motion. In-ear blood vital signs monitoring via earbuds, on the other hand, can deliver a higher level of accuracy given that arteries there are much closer to the skin’s surface and there’s a better signal-to-noise ratio compared to the wrist.
  • Low power. No one enjoys frequent recharging or running out of charge at inopportune moments.
  • Data safety. Users need to be able to trust that all of the personal data collected by the device will not get into the wrong hands.
  • Small and affordable. The less obtrusive the device, the easier it is for people to incorporate into their daily lives. And affordability is a key for obvious reasons.

Andrew Baker, participates in a panel discussion at the Firstbeat HRV SummitThe author, Andrew Baker, participates in a panel discussion at the Firstbeat HRV Summit. Photo courtesy of Firstbeat & Akifoto.

Enabling Individualized Healthcare

As one of my colleagues on the panel noted, there are various capabilities that are either emerging or in development that may not be approved from an official medical standpoint. I agree with his point that this doesn’t mean that these functions aren’t valuable in some capacity. It’s important that we continue to foster innovation and to push for accuracy in these devices.

Looking ahead, wearables could contribute to more individualized healthcare and certain form factors may evolve to support more use cases. For example, what about adding heart-rate variability monitoring and pulse-oximetry to a patch that measures glucose levels in diabetics? Or, how about measuring heart rate and blood-oxygen levels from a hearing aid? The patient is already using the device for a particular purpose, so it would be practical to incorporate other uses based on that person’s needs. More and more, people want to do things noninvasively. Blood is a great window into overall health, but it is hard to measure noninvasively. So this presents a challenge for a hardware company like Maxim—to drive the innovation to create, for instance, tools that will accomplish what must currently be done in a hospital. Another exciting prospect is the emergence of 5G, as this presents the possibility of remote monitoring from wearables that aren’t tethered to smartphones.

The Firstbeat HRV Summit presented an exciting opportunity to share ideas with some of the sharpest minds in the area of healthcare wearables. Indeed, with the technologies that are already available and coming in the future, the potential for enabling healthier outcomes is bright.

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Review application notes, tutorials, and sensor solutions that can help you address your wearable healthcare design challenges.