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Wearable devices with health IT functions poised to disrupt medicine

Fred O'Connor | May 2, 2014
The next innovation in health care may come from Silicon Valley.

For wearable devices to be accepted by physicians, they need to be "designed with the kind of 99-plus percent precision" that is expected from their clinical counterparts, Blum said. Without validation of the devices' ability to take accurate readings, patients and care providers can't rely on them and "they end up in a drawer," Blum said.

But physicians would welcome a new generation of scientifically valid wearables, since the high volume of data generated by such devices may lead to new ways of identifying disease symptoms, measuring wellness and discovering nontraditional vital signs, said Blum.

Most people spend their time outside of hospitals and wearable devices will give doctors data on how lifestyle affects a person's health, said Dr. Michael Docktor, a gastroenterologist at Boston Children's Hospital.

Given the huge installed base that the leading tech companies have, even limited use of wearables among their users could create useful data sets.

"You don't need much adoption or much continuous use to create a database that doesn't exist for medicine anywhere," USC's Saxon said. "If you have the largest database of 18-year-olds' heart rates and blood sugar and activity, you've got a very powerful data set. A couple of hundred million people all over the world is really compelling."

As keen as some doctors are on wearable devices, however, the health care system isn't ready to incorporate the technology. Care providers are focused on implementing and learning electronic-health-record (EHR) software, Blum said. When EHR systems are established, they're designed around storing data generated from a patient visit, not information from a wearable device, he added.

The data analysis component of health IT is still developing, said Blum. Don't expect to upload wearable data to Google or Apple's cloud for analysis, he said.

"The vision is the doctor is sitting waiting for all this, and the doctors aren't. They're running around with their hair on fire trying to do what they do right now," Blum said.

Eventually, companies that specialize in handling high-volume data will partner with the medical community to better understand the health care ecosystem and offer analysis applications.

"It's kind of a little naïve to think that a company that's developing new sensor technology [is] also going to have the wherewithal to develop analytics for it," Blum said. "And whether they're going to have the scientific insights and background to know what's relevant and then figure out what should get pushed to the clinician."

Some physicians and software developers may opt to build applications for specific medical conditions that push relevant data to clinicians, Docktor of Boston Children's Hospital said. "I think it's going to be people independently hacking the system," he said.

 

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