News that Amazon has moved into the wearable health and fitness area with its Halo Band, Silicon UK considers the technologies and services we can all access to improve our health and stay fit. Wearable health has been an option for several years. However, in the age of COVID, can technology help us all stay health?
Taking more of an active role in our health and wellbeing has never been more critical than today. The pandemic has illustrated how individuals have the potential to influence their health massively. Technology, of course, has existed for over a decade to aid how we can all pay more attention to our health. However, are we on the cusp of a wearable health tech revolution that will move these devices to the next level?
The latest device to join the wearable health monitoring market is Amazon’s Halo. Says Dr Maulik Majmudar, Principal Medical Officer, Amazon Halo. “Health is much more than just the number of steps you take in a day or how many hours you sleep. Amazon Halo combines the latest medical science, highly accurate data via the Halo Band sensors, and cutting-edge artificial intelligence to offer a more comprehensive approach to improving your health and wellness.”
Wearable health could also be about to move into a new area of development. For several years, eTextiles have been in development. Researchers from Tufts University’s School of Engineering are using conductive inks embedded into fabrics that react when chemicals are released from the body.
“The use of novel bioactive inks with the very common method of screen printing opens up promising opportunities for the mass-production of soft, wearable fabrics with large numbers of sensors that could be applied to detect a range of conditions,” said Fiorenzo Omenetto and Frank C. Doble Professor of Engineering at Tufts’ School of Engineering. “The fabrics can end up in uniforms for the workplace, sports clothing, or even on furniture and architectural structures.”
When our clothing can become our health monitors, more mass use of this technology is far easier to adopt for any given population or group. When our clothing becomes a new digital epidermis, the possibilities for health monitoring become endless.
COVID-19 is, of course, not far from the wearable healthcare technology debate. Using intelligent textiles in a face mask could see a significant application of technologies like this in the near term. Already wearable tech companies such as Confirm RX, FreeStyle Libre, BioScarf and Whoop [https://www.whoop.com/] are playing an active role in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Abu Dhabi-based G42 Healthcare has announced a volunteer healthcare management program with Boston-based wearable technology firm WHOOP. The Whoop4Humanity initiative ensures that volunteers who now join the clinical trials at ADNEC in Abu Dhabi and the Al Qarain Center in Sharjah, including those coming in for the second dose, can further enhance their participation in the trails by using the new wearable devices which will enable them to check their daily heart rate, respiratory rate, heart rate variability, sleep performance, and more.
Commenting on the new partnership, G42 Healthcare CEO Ashish Koshy said: “As a digital business, this new partnership is a logical extension of the highly-advanced AI and supercomputer solutions we are already using in the trials process. New volunteers will be invited to engage with the technology developed by WHOOP to enhance their individual volunteer experience and contribute to the advanced research involved in these sophisticated trials.”
But can wearable health-tracking devices have an impact on the fight against the pandemic? Research from The Healthcare Innovation Lab at Stanford Medicine concluded there is evidence that using commercially available health tech devices can detect changes in the heart rates of Coronavirus patients. Speaking to ABC News, Dr John Brownstein, chief innovation officer for Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor of epidemiology at Harvard Medical School said: “There’s a huge amount of promise in these new technologies.”
And as remote mass working looks set to become the norm for many companies, supporting the health of these remote workers will be paramount. Wearable health technologies will be a component in that support. Indeed, according to the latest survey from Savills 87% of respondents already have, or will have, a wearable device. However, when it comes to sharing their health information, respondents to the survey are cautious indicating more work needs to be done to remove the anxiety that can be attached to sharing this highly personal information even if this is with healthcare professionals.
For the wearable health tech to become truly universal, these devices will need robust and secure data connectivity. Here, the burgeoning IoT space will deliver the communications infrastructure that will be required. Security of these networks is paramount, but none more so when personal health data is being transmitted.
Speaking to Silicon UK, Greg Day, VP and CSO, EMEA at Palo Alto Networks explains: “Back in 2017, the X prize went to create the first Star Trek-like tricorder. The tricorder concept is a lens into the future of this technology, but the reality of wearable health tech comes with significant challenges that will be about managing a combination of using existing rather than dedicated wearables. Indeed, our own recent study of IT decision-makers in 14 countries revealed that wearable medical devices like heart monitors are the most common non-corporate, personal IoT device they find connected to business networks.”
“This informs the cybersecurity of such wearables. How do you validate which medical data gets shared between which devices? How do you validate it’s for the same person? Is that data shareable if it hasn’t been anonymised? Do you need (GDPR) consent to share it?”
Day concludes: “That’s just the data. Then we start with the device security, is the device security up to a baseline? Today there are some standards but nothing yet consistent globally. If we don’t know the cybersecurity health, how can we trust the quality of the data from it? What is the mechanism used to share data? Will it be local Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 5G? All of these carry security challenges, as such, how can we ensure a secure connection. How will the authentication actually confirm the device sharing really is from the user the receiving device is looking to communicate with if the devices are not able to share user information for privacy reasons. What data is actually sharable, the full data or just metadata.”
Also, Dr Vincent Grasso, global practice lead: Healthcare and Life Sciences, IPsoft says: “There is significant concern over the privacy and security implications of patient private health information being captured and transmitted by an ever-growing number of vendors. As the number of devices and vendors increases rapidly, NHS bodies and government agencies involved in maintaining standards are finding it difficult to keep up. Patients have very little insight, if any, into what is happening to their private health information that is being captured and transmitted by clinical apps within specific devices or within smartphone apps.”
The tech of health
Wearable technology in its current state is set to expand and develop rapidly, but how far could this go? Research from security firm Kaspersky found that 92% of us would change a physical aspect of ourselves if we could. In comparison, nearly two thirds (63%) of us would consider augmenting our bodies with technology to improve them – either permanently or temporarily.
The wide-reaching study of 14,500 adults across 16 countries in Europe and North Africa found that Italians are the most likely to consider human augmentation (81%) and Brits the least (33%). Some respondents even expressed the desire to connect smartphones to their bodies.
Most people were clear that they wanted human augmentation to be used for the good of humanity, with 53% of people saying it should be used to improve quality of life. Across the board, in every country, the objective for any human augmentation was to improve overall physical health (40%) or eyesight (33%).
Some doubts remain though, with respondents stating that they feared augmentation would be limited to the wealthy (69%), while nearly nine in 10 (88%) people indicated that they feared their bodies could be hacked by cybercriminals.
Marco Preuss, director of the Global Research and Analysis Team, Europe, for Kaspersky, commented: “Human augmentation is one of the most significant technology trends today. We’re already seeing a wide range of practical applications being deployed across the everyday areas of our lives like health and social care, sport, education and transport.
“Exoskeletons for fire and rescue or the bioprinting of organs are a couple of examples. But people are right to be wary. Augmentation enthusiasts are already testing the limits of what’s possible, but we need commonly agreed to standards to ensure augmentation reaches its full potential while minimising the risks.”
The wearable health monitoring technologies we have presently can track a range of physiological parameters of an individual. This data, though, is in isolation. The real value is when this information is combined with more detailed patient histories and other more detailed tests and scans. Wearables can give individuals an early warning system, but current wearables need to be an integrated component of more comprehensive health monitoring to deliver real value and preventative care.
Dr Nigel Whittle, head of medical and Healthcare at design and engineering consultancy, Plextek explained to Silicon UK: “It is only when this data is combined and cross-referenced that we are able to build a complete profile of our overall health. This integrated approach to health monitoring and measurement can also provide more accurate alerts to anomalous physiological changes. These then have the potential to identify deteriorating health or the onset of a serious medical problem.”
“MonitorMe from Sanandco is a simple physiological monitoring system, which reports directly to a health provider or care body. And while the popularity of existing consumer wearables has waned, going forward we will start to see more integration with the ability to offer more effective health advisory alerts and sync up to other clinical diagnostic apps.”
And what of the future? IPsoft’s Dr Vincent Grasso commented: “The next five years are going to witness profound changes within the healthcare delivery landscape concerning medical devices and technology in general. The expansion of AI ecosystem assets such as conversational computing, machine learning, smartphone apps, and others will have a profound impact on the delivery of care.
“As hospital systems migrate from on-premises information system hosting to the cloud, the ability to integrate an ever-widening list of IoT devices, peripherals, expert systems, and other related will increase rapidly. Maintaining security and privacy around all of this churn will be difficult to manage. Data breaches will be ever more complex. The trade-off is better quality healthcare delivery and management within a decentralised network.”
Of course, wearable health devices have been highly popular, particularly amongst the section of the population that have an interest in overall fitness and an affinity for any technology that can help them achieve this. Wearable health technology, though, needs to move into the mainstream and become as commonplace as wearing a wristwatch or carrying a mobile phone to become truly transformational. Thanks to COVID-19, we could be entering a period where these wearable health devices become essential and not just a novelty for the few.
Silicon in Focus
Graeme Cox, CEO and Co-founder of emteq labs.
In a post-COVID environment, how will businesses use wearable health technologies to support their staff?
“I believe wearable health tech will be used by employers in two key ways to support their staff further: Firstly, improving staff physical and mental wellbeing through technologies that promote movement (for instance, that encourages staff to not sit at their desk for too long) and stress management. I’ve seen estimates that back pain costs the US economy as much as $100bn p.a. in productivity loss etc.. In addition, stress is one of the leading causes of workplace sickness, with a suggested cost of $300BN to the US economy.
“Managing posture, work practices, stress levels etc. is in large part about changing behaviour and habits. As such, the tech that promotes behaviour change can be very valuable. For instance, emteq labs’ virtual reality technology could be a useful tool in helping to manage stress in the workplace, providing stress reduction with objective measurement to gamify meditative and centring techniques.
“Secondly, to avoid the over surveillance and ethical issues of monitoring biometrics of an employee base, use of technologies to do so must (on the whole) be voluntary, not enforced, and a benefit to the employee must be shown. Data must remain private to the individual and not the property of the employer, or trust is lost, and Big Brother tactics commence. Exceptions to this might be Blue-Light services and military, where the performance of the human body/mind is absolutely fundamental to the execution of the job in pressure situations.”
Has the failure of a working and comprehensive COVID tracing app meant business leaders have little faith in how technology can help them manage the health of their staff?
“The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in rapidly introducing technology into workspaces and individual’s lives, particularly to encourage social distancing. Tools like remote video calling or scheduling doctor’s appointments via online platforms have been embraced by companies and individuals alike, and I find, opened up a greater interest in what other technology is out there that can bring solutions to workspaces. Particularly in healthcare, users and staff are more open to ideas using technology where they may not have had an interest in this before.”
Wearable technologies are a component of IoT. Are there any specific challenges when IoT technologies are using in the healthcare sector? Privacy and security, for instance?
“What we’re starting to create with wearables in healthcare is the Internet of Bodies (the IoB). It offers enormous value to individuals and healthcare providers in enabling personalised, remote healthcare for a wide range of ailments. Privacy and security is, of course, key.
“I believe that patient data should remain the property of the patient, in perpetuity, allowing individuals to determine when and how their data is accessed and even enabling them to gain financial or service benefits from allowing their data to be used for other purposes. Blockchain technologies provide the infrastructure to allow this, but traditional homogenous data and business structures are only starting to wake up to this principle.”
How do you see wearable technologies developing over the short to medium term?
“We are now in a world of mass acceptance of wearable health technologies, driven in large part by the success of sports and health tech watches such which provide users with more significant information on their own health and health insurance companies that link up this health and fitness data to customer benefits. The second wave is the take-up of health industries of the data opportunities that these provide.
“For instance, we are leveraging the data willingly collected by the wearer to benefit the wearer; from remote patient management to insurance and even into therapy and treatment. In doing so, the doors will open to a whole new wave of IoB (Internet of Bodies) devices, reading not just from the wrist but other critical parts of the body – for example, the face (via IoB glasses) the epicentre of our verbal and non-verbal communications and the true source of most of the data we externalise about, literally, ‘how we feel’.
“Tracking emotion, stress and pain could have enormous medical impacts. At emteq labs and in partnership with some of the leading researchers worldwide we have been exploring the power of facial wearables to help with conditions as varied as anxiety, depression, PTSD, pain, Parkinson’s disease, autism and facial paralysis. For these conditions, our technology could track how these patients really feel, where they may not be able to communicate it accurately verbally.”
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels.