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Customers try on Apple Watch devices at the Apple Marunouchi Store on September 7, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan.

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Fitness trackers from companies like Apple, Amazon and Google are making a marked shift from being low-tech devices that count steps, to now becoming what is modern in the field of personal health.

Tracking fitness and training data for personal use or sharing with friends can be helpful and fun. But there is a growing interest in incorporating a wider range of medical data into the digital healthcare ecosystem – piggybacking on the dramatic rise in remote telecommunications services needed during the Covid-19 pandemic – to make individuals’ information available to doctors and hospitals as a part of electronic medicine health records.

The wearables market started moving more than ten years ago with basic fitness, training and sports activity tracking devices. Nearly 30% of Americans now use a portable healthcare device, many of which now have the capabilities to track, monitor and transmit data on heart rate and rhythm, blood pressure, body temperature, blood sugar levels, sleep quality and even early warning signs of Covid-19 infection.

Fitbit helped launch the trend in 2009 with a clip-on gadget that recorded the wearer’s movements, sleep and calories. This model turned into a wristband, which over the years added more biosensors and Bluetooth connectivity to download data to smartphones. Google’s parent company Alphabet bought Fitbit for $ 2.1 billion in January.

Apple entered space in 2015 with the debut of their Watch, since they added a range of health-related features and apps and created a platform for third-party developers to create tools used not only by consumers but also healthcare organizations and researchers to get access to. and analyze data captured on their smartwatches. It has also adapted to fitness companies like Nike, Strava and Adidas to allow them to sync their activity apps to the watch. By 2020, the Apple Watch generated nearly $ 13 billion in sales, capturing 65% of the global smartwatch market by revenue, estimates analytics firm Strategy Analytics.

This burgeoning market has attracted other Big Tech players, including Amazon, the maker of the Halo smartband, and Huawei, which unveiled its Watch 3 this year. There are also a number of other smartwatch contestants from the consumer electronics world, among them Samsung, Garmin and Withings.

In the pure-play category, the Finnish startup Oura designed a ring embedded with biosensors for monitoring sleep, heart rate and body temperature. In May, the company announced a $ 100 million Series C investment round, bringing its total funding to more than $ 148 million. And the Peloton is reportedly planning a digital wristband.

The global market for portable health and fitness devices – including sensor-loaded watches, wristbands, rings, patches, glasses and clothing – reached more than $ 36 billion by 2020, and is expected to peak at $ 114 billion by 2028 with a CAGR of 15 , 4%. Deloitte Global predicts that the market segment for smartwatches and smart patches alone will ship 320 million units worldwide by 2022, a figure that is likely to reach 440 million by 2024.

“There’s significant money in this area from venture capital and private investment sources,” said Deloitte’s Paul Silverglate, vice president and head of the US technology sector.

Several medtech companies have introduced smart patches, penny-sized shards that adhere to the skin and use microscopic needles that act as biosensors and deliver drugs. BioIntelliSense, based in Redwood City, California, created BioSticker, carried on the upper left breast for continuous monitoring and data capture of respiration rate, heart rate at rest and skin temperature. Publicly owned Insulet, based in Acton, Massachusetts, has developed the OmniPod, a patch that acts as an insulin pump.

Sensorized clothing has also emerged. Montreal-based Hexoskin developed a line of smart shirts that collect cardiac, respiratory and activity data and transfer them to an iOS or Android compatible device. The company partnered with the Canadian space agency on an extraterrestrial version, Astroskin, to track the vital functions of astronauts as they rocketed out of this world.

To provide accurate data and information

In addition to the technological possibilities, there is now the critical question of efficiency – of the devices, the apps that link to them and the generated petabytes of data – which causes manufacturers of wearables to coordinate with independent researchers to see if they deliver as announced.

Joshua Hagen, a research associate professor at Ohio State University’s Department of Integrated Systems Engineering, studied biosensors more than ten years ago at Air Force Research Labs “before wearables really exploded on stage,” he said. Hagen then began testing devices on elite athletes and monitored their performance data. “There are a ton of devices out there, but we have to rely first and foremost on the data that comes from them,” he said.

The chin has discovered that the part of the body where a device is worn matters. The Polar Heart Monitor chest strap, for example, since the early 1980s, “has been validated in a thousand different ways.” And the wrist is good for measuring resting heart rate. “But fingers are a very interesting place,” he said, referring to his studies on the Oura ring. In one, it had the second-highest accuracy among the devices, with chest straps ranking first.

Another study, launched after Covid hit, showed that by applying an algorithm to Oura user data, Hagen’s team was able to identify early warning signs three days before coronavirus infection. A separate proof-of-concept study examining the effectiveness of different wearables showed that they could detect the onset of fever, a pervasive symptom of Covid and other infections.

In November 2019, Apple partnered with research teams to launch three health surveys using the Apple Watch. A women’s health project, in collaboration with the Harvard School of Public Health and the National Institutes of Health, aims to promote the understanding of menstrual cycles and their relationship to various health conditions, including infertility, osteoporosis and menopause. Apple’s Heart and Motion Study, with Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the American Heart Association, examines how certain mobility signals and details about heart rate and rhythm can serve as potential early warning signs of atrial fibrillation or Afib, heart disease or declining mobility.

How doctors can use the data

The ultimate healthcare wearable scenario envisions the general public wearing smart devices that have proven effective and continuously download vital data to primary providers that track patients in real time, monitor their overall health and respond to any emergencies . To take that leap, however, doctors need to be convinced that the devices are working, that patients are using them correctly, and that the data is reliable.

To this end, the American Medical Association (AMA) conducted a study of physicians to measure their opinion on a variety of digital health tools, including wearables. More than 87% of respondents see at least some benefit from their overall use, especially wearables and telecommunications devices. Yet doctors also said there are “must-haves” that digital tools need to turn their enthusiasm for adoption, including improved efficiency and increased protection of patients’ data protection and security. “Physicians’ enthusiasm for technology is directly linked to a solution’s ability to help them take better care of patients,” said Meg Barron, vice president of AMA’s digital health strategy.

For marketers, the most critical factor will be whether people actually buy and use wearables. “Health is a killer app category for consumers,” especially as the Internet of Things emerges, said Lauren Martin, senior Internet and media analyst at Needham & Company. It will be increasingly helpful if users can be monitored when they are out of the house, she said, and then have their data uploaded to their electronic journal.

And while it’s still too early to pick winners and losers, Martin said: “Apple has a game because they have this amazing distribution network through its physical stores. So they can push the clock when you walk into the store to buy an iPhone. Amazon can link their healthcare devices to Alexa [smart speakers]. “

However, Martin does not count independent players and is excited to see what emerges at the January Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (covid variants allow it). “It will be interesting to find out what new businesses are doing, compared to what is already on the market,” she said.

Yes, “Who are you wearing?” may become the next fashion axiom applied to healthcare.

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Fitbit Sense smartwatch on the arm of a man showing ECG cardiac health function, San Ramon, California, October 8, 2020. (Photo by Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images)

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