HEALTH PLAN - JSE MAGAZINE

HEALTH PLAN

Sparked by COVID-19, wearables tech is proving to be big business

HEALTH PLAN

It is difficult these days to find someone who has not been touched by COVID-19 – whether through direct illness and loss or unexpected kindness. Whatever the ramifications, COVID will leave a lasting imprint on our society. The rise of e-commerce and work from home are two well-established trends that were catapulted forward by COVID, but as we endured lockdowns, and social distancing became the norm, so other trends have emerged. The surge in health and wellness awareness, for example, has accelerated the consumption of fitness apps by the tech savvy and less savvy alike. The WEF reports that by September last year global downloads of fitness and health apps had increased by almost 50%.

This is a big business opportunity and the likes of Google, Apple, Samsung, Amazon and others know it. Quite how big that pie is, is hard to pin down precisely. Gartner projected that the wearables industry would be worth about $81.5 billion by 2021, but others cite different figures. The point is, an exciting paradigm shift is taking place. By merging AI tech with traditional healthcare, the wearables industry is evolving from providing simple activity trackers into health platforms that can really improve people’s lives. For instance, Fitbit – now owned by Google – has jumped into the back-to-work business, combining its expertise in wearable technology and its relationship with employers to roll out a solution that aims to help bring employees back to the office safely amid the pandemic. Using key health metrics from the device and self-reported symptoms, it helps employees tell whether they have signs of COVID-19 before returning to work.

That’s just for starters. Apple’s Cardiogram app, which measures heart rates, now tracks sleeping-beats-per-minute to monitor heartrate fluctuations in users with COVID-19. And a German smartwatch app has been developed that monitors the spread of the virus. The Robert Koch Institute partnered with a healthcare start-up to launch the Corona Data Donation app, which gathers vital readings such as pulse, temperature and sleep duration from users and analyses whether they have COVID-19 symptoms. Smartwatch vendors are also boasting of additional features such as heart-rate monitoring and accelerometry (the recording of patterns of motion and rest) to become more holistic health trackers. Innovator that it is, Apple’s latest smartwatch is able to measure the oxygen saturation of the wearer’s blood so they can better understand their overall fitness and wellness. Amazon is also looking to get a slice of the market with its new Amazon Halo fitness tracker. The first wearable device launched by the tech giant, it offers familiar capabilities such as activity and sleep tracking but can also measure body fat and tone of voice as an indicator of well-being.

What’s incredible is how teams of researchers, engineers and clinicians are working together to unlock the potential of everyday devices and inexpensive sensors to provide people with the data and insights they need to proactively manage their health. Of course, health is much more than how many steps you take in a day or hours you sleep. The data isn’t meant for medical diagnosis or to evaluate medical conditions – in fact devices don’t provide feedback on measurements – but they can be useful for people wanting to track and improve day-to-day wellness.

It is unsurprising then that some medical professionals are sceptical of wearable tech’s functionality and usefulness – many see it as a fad and have concerns over the accuracy of the data devices collect. Privacy concerns will need to be managed too. Yet these concerns will ease as the industry evolves, as the reams of data produced are crunched, and trials are held and research published. Accuracy will improve too. The pandemic raised our awareness about health, and mindsets have shifted towards having agency and understanding over our health. Eventually, the tech will massively change the way health is practised by consumers and the healthcare industry itself.

By Sasha Planting