David Kerr: Silicon is the new black

david_kerrRecently the big four titans of technology (Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, and Google) have, almost simultaneously, thrown their hats into the wearable sensor ring. Apparently, consumers now want to wear devices to record personal physiological data, which can then be synchronized with their smartphones. Through cloud computing, this can then be shared with their doctors and nurses as well. The early adopters of wearable technology are, unsurprisingly, young, wealthy, and tech savvy—while also fashion conscious enough to want the technology to resemble jewelry.

The idea of a “personal health ecosystem” is based on using sensors that capture data on multiple physiological variables, such as heart rate and rhythm, oxygen saturation, calories burned, sleep, temperature, etc. For people with diabetes, the hope is also to embed a non-invasive sensor for measuring glucose levels when and if one becomes available. All of this data will be captured on a smart watch that is connected to a phone, and which can be used by the individual or made available to the medical team with a system of alerts for abnormal readings. The captured data would also be automatically entered into a medical record.

These behemoths of technology certainly have the computing and financial power to make all of this happen, but will it excite users beyond a novelty phase? And will it be of value in clinical medicine? Certainly, there will be interest from the “worried well,” but the idea of reams of personal data being sent to a doctor’s office is unlikely to be met with unbridled enthusiasm by most medical practitioners who are already pressed for time.

A personal health ecosystem could be valuable for people living with long term medical conditions, but only if they have guidance on what to do with the results. For older individuals, wearable technologies are being developed to improve spatial awareness and mobility. This includes shoes that are linked to smartphones, and which use vibrations to help visually impaired people navigate through a city, while also identifying points of interest and counting steps and calories (Helpful Wearables Trend report).

Another concern gaining traction is that all of this wearable technology is a bit creepy. Beyond recording heart rate and temperature, these devices also have the ability to track an individual. So one day they might be able to report that you rarely walk anywhere or spend too much time in the pub. And if they are combined with smartphone data about your purchases, then your doctor might find out if you are buying cigarettes or have lunch in McDonald’s every day.

The other factor that these companies need to remember is that acute illness is often unpredictable. When it occurs, the first and most important manifestations are symptoms rather than physiological signs. For sure these devices will have a place, but will they have a market? It would be a shame if their potential value for a small(ish) number of people will be lost because the volume of long term sales do not generate enough profit for the companies, or, in Google speak, because it “did not have the broad impact that we hoped it would.”

David Kerr wears many hats, sometimes at the same time—diabetologist, editor of Diabetes Digest, researcher, and founder of VoyageMD.com, a free service for travellers with diabetes, and Excarbs.com, which focuses on exercise and insulin. He is now director of research and development at Sansum Diabetes Research Institute in Santa Barbara, California. You can follow him on Twitter (@GoDiabetesMD) and Linkedin.

Competing interests: The author has no relevant competing interests to declare.