After participating in WearHacks last fall, the topic of wearable technology and sensorial information brings me child-like excitement. Wearable technology has been making a lot of headlines for the past 3 years with companies like Best Buy starting wearable sections in their stores. But assuming we are the kinds of biomedical engineers who hope to provide impactful AND profitable solutions, we really need to question if the technology, in its current state, is useful or if it is just another toy thrown into a consumer society.
Before we answer this question, one needs to define the purpose of wearable technology, specifically in the biomedical field (and not entertainment). I recently attended a presentation given by Prof. Andy Adler. In his talk, Prof. Adler highlighted that systemic changes in healthcare, such as decentralization, are taking place. Such changes signify that the purpose of future wearable tech should provide users with health solutions, that relieve them of the need to go to a hospital or a clinic. This model, as described by Didier Deltort (President of GE Healthcare in Finland), respects the three characteristics of an efficient healthcare system. That is, aneasy to access system that is not costly, providing quality care. Examining the current devices on the market, one would quickly discover that gadgets such as Fitbits and smart garments do not meet the criterion of quality care, despite being relatively cheap and easy to buy.
While in Toronto last summer, I visited the Toronto Rehab Institute’s labs. During the tour, I was shown the HomeLab, a research initiative in which a make-shift home is embedded with sensors relaying real time patient data to a hospital data base for analysis. Despite not being wearable, cheap or accessible, the exact function of the sensors met the criteria of quality care provided previously. One would therefore imagine that the ideal wearable device would lie somewhere at the intersection of this example, and current consumer devices.
However, with the extremely regulated nature of medical device industry, upcoming start-ups are put through massive amounts of paper work, inspections and audits. Unfortunately, in a fast paced market that is driven by profit, the lengthy process of device approval is not one in which a company such as Hexoskin or Fitbit is going to be willing to spend its next three years. No investor will wait that long for a return, especially when the kinds of accuracies needed to meet the criteria of the medical field are incredibly high.
I’m not stipulating that medical device regulation should be relaxed, but we cannot be surprised when companies are reluctant to delve into the biomedical field. This goes without even mentioning that risks in the medical field are much greater than those associated with sports performance.
All this is to say, I think our transition towards impactful wearable technology will take some time and a lot of effort into making the technology more precise and accurate. I also believe that companies will begin shifting away from product based models to service based models, to make up for their R&D expenses. And who knows… maybe Google Glass will be cool and useful some day (just kidding)..