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Wearable Devices and Remote Monitoring in Healthcare: An Overview

Wearable technology is no longer a thing of the future and very much a trend of the present, with wearable devices now commonplace on the consumer market and healthcare providers embracing new tools to monitor, diagnose, and treat patients remotely. While wearable technology and remote monitoring have been growing in popularity in the world of medicine, recent global events have created a sudden demand for these alternatives to traditional in-office visits, tests, and monitoring. 

Global concern over public health has steadily been on the rise due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, creating a new surge in the popularity of remote healthcare monitoring systems and devices. Remote monitoring and wearable devices are helping to make medical treatment during this period necessary social distancing and self-isolation easier, and have even proven helpful in the detection of COVID-19.

Though brilliant minds are creating new solutions each and every day, this guide has the scoop on everything you need to know about the current state of wearable medical devices and remote monitoring tools.

History of Remote Monitoring and Wearable Devices

Wearable devices and technology have been around for centuries, that is, as long as you are alright with a relatively loose definition of ‘technology’. Eyeglasses, for example, were invented in the 13th century as a solution to sight-degradation and loss. The 20th century gave us such wearable devices as digital hearing aids, another major addition to the world of medical technology. 

Telehealth and remote monitoring, on the other hand, is relatively new in the field of healthcare, only really beginning to flourish after the birth of the Internet in the 1990s. Prior to the internet, only the rare use of telephones to transfer medical records, reports, and information could really be counted as forms of ‘telehealth’. 

The global spread of the Internet in the 90’s afforded doctors and other healthcare professionals the chance to readily share information and gain access to one another, heralding in a new era in medicine. Established shortly after the explosion of Internet accessibility, the non-profit American Telemedicine Association was and is the driving force behind improving telecommunications technology accessibility for patients and medical practitioners alike.  

Spurred on by public demand and support from the healthcare industry, wearable devices and remote monitoring technology began to crop up, quickly gaining traction with consumer markets. Relatively simple devices like the now-infamous Life Alert were readily and enthusiastically adopted by individuals and institutions everywhere, quickly turning wearable technology from futuristic fantasy to present-day reality.

Where devices like Life Alert enabled patents to get the help they needed from healthcare professionals, further advancements to wearable devices and remote monitoring technologies put the power in the hands of the patients, allowing individuals with chronic disease to monitor their condition more closely without frequent doctor’s visits, making healthcare more accessible to diverse populations, and so on. 

Now, the majority of healthcare professionals utilize remote monitoring and wearable technology options in the course of their work, and a wide range of devices are readily available on the consumer market for individuals interested in self-monitoring their health and wellness. The explosion in the popularity of medical wearables and remote monitoring devices has initiated a new age of collaboration between healthcare providers and patients, normalizing conversations about health in the everyday rather than just at the doctor’s office. 

Advantages of Wearable Devices and Remote Monitoring

Just as cellphones and social media have made it easier for friends and family to communicate, wearable medical devices and remote monitoring tools have made it easier for patients and doctors to communicate. Previously nearly all medical care, advice, or oversight had to be done in person, requiring doctors and other healthcare providers to visit face to face with their patients for everything, from complex testing to the delivery of simple advice.

With the popular adoption of wearable and remote monitoring devices, the medical industry has become more accommodating, more efficient, and a little easier for everyone involved. 

Self-Monitoring Capabilities

Some may shy away from wearable medical devices for fear of promoting patient self-diagnosis, but in reality, these technologies actually discourage guesswork and help to encourage accurate medical diagnosis and collaboration between patient and caregiver. The ability to self-monitor can help to improve early detection, alerting patients to potential problems when they first begin rather than once the problem has become physically noticeable enough to warrant a doctor’s visit. 

Patients with chronic diseases and conditions that require ongoing/long-term care and monitoring are able to gather important data without the frequent doctor’s visits, instead tracking things like heart-rate, blood pressure, glucose levels, and more from the comfort of their own home. 

Healthcare Accessibility and Convenience

Wearable devices and remote monitoring tools in particular also aid in the improvement of healthcare accessibility for people of diverse backgrounds and abilities. Telecommunication and telehealth services remove transportation barriers, enabling home-bound or individuals with limited mobility to easy access doctor’s appointments without needing to arrange for transportation.

Virtual doctor’s appointments and online follow-ups help prevent scheduling conflicts, giving patients an easier and less time-consuming option for accessing healthcare services. 

Increased Independence

In some cases, wearable devices and remote monitoring technologies allow patients a level of independence they may not otherwise have been afforded. Like with Life Alert, many wearable technologies are designed to alert caregivers in the event of an emergency, unexpected event, or hazardous conditions.

Current technology in this vein can be used to monitor patient whereabouts, administer scheduled medication, and help patients manage and monitor chronic diseases that may otherwise require round-the-clock care. 

Basic Wearables

The relatively easy transition of patients to telehealth systems is largely due to the popularity of commercial health and wellness wearables. These tools are used independently by individuals to self-monitor and track fitness, goals, activity, sleep, etc.

Now the most popular example of wearable devices, these two popular commercial options have been embraced by health-conscious consumers everywhere. 

Fitbit

Perhaps now the most iconic example of commercial wearable tech, the Fitbit is the original mass-marketed activity tracker. Now featuring multiple generations, each with new advancements and applications, the basic function of a Fitbit is to track steps, heart-rate, daily activity/movement, and sleep.

Originally released in 2007, Fitbit is now the most popular dedicated fitness wearable available to the mass market. 

Apple Watch

While Fitbits and other activity trackers focus solely on health and wellness, wearables like the Apple Watch feature a range of uses from health to entertainment. Combining some elements of a smartphone with all the best parts of an activity tracker, smart watches like Apple Watch provide detailed health data and are always tracking activity in the background, even if you’re just using it to listen to music. 

Advanced Remote Monitoring Applications

The data gathered from commercial devices like Fitbits is primarily intended for use by the individual. More advanced wearables and remote monitoring devices may be suggested or provided by a healthcare professional for the purposes of diagnosing, treating, or monitoring the condition of an individual.

Here are just some of the many ways wearable devices and remote monitoring systems are making medical treatment more accessible and less invasive. 

Heart Failure Monitoring

Heart failure has become an increasingly common condition for individuals around the world, spurring on the development of wearable devices and remote monitoring tools for the tracking of heart health. Monitoring of severe heart conditions like heart failure reduces the need for emergency hospitalization by encouraging patients to take an active role in the maintenance of their health.

At the forefront of heart-health wearables are electrocardiogram monitors designed to track heart activity and alert caregivers to abnormalities, stress and strain, atrial fibrillation, and more. These devices allow patients with heart conditions to reliably track their heart health, send results and data to their healthcare providers, and detect possible emergencies before they ever happen. 

Blood Pressurer Monitoring

Individuals with blood pressure conditions are often forced to spend inordinate amounts of time visiting their healthcare providers, frequently requiring blood pressure checks to ensure their treatment plans are working. Wearable blood pressure monitors can eliminate the need for frequent doctor’s visits, instead remotely measuring blood pressure levels and sending the results directly to a patient’s healthcare provider, and will instantly alert caregivers in case of abnormal results. 

Diabetes Treatment

While at-home readers for individuals with diabetes have been available for some time, not all of these devices have made health data readily available to healthcare professionals, meaning that patient treatment plans are typically only based on in-office results and tests. The appointment schedule often required of patients with type I or II diabetes can be gruelling, often conflicting with work, school, or other life commitments. 

Remote monitoring tools make self-management of diabetes type I and II easier, allowing patients to engage more closely with their results and treatment. Remote monitoring for diabetes can also help to improve communications between the patient and their team of carers, giving everyone access to the same data for the purposes of improvement treatment plans and easing the task day-to-day of lifestyle management for patients with diabetes. 

Diagnosis and Telemedicine

Though often used for the tracking of specific conditions, remote monitoring in the world of healthcare has also proven effective for general diagnostic purposes. With most people able to readily access smartphones and other devices, virtual doctor’s visits have become an increasingly popular alternative to in-office visits.

Many healthcare providers offer diagnostic services for easily recognizable and non-life threatening conditions, allowing patients to submit information through questionnaires and forms online, over the phone, or via video chat. 

Similarly, many healthcare providers have begun to encourag patients to schedule follow up visits online or by phone, rather than returning to the office for an in-person appointment. By opting for quick virtual-visits for patients not requiring in-person care, patients and healthcare providers alike are saving time, money, and resources. 

Remote Monitoring and Coronavirus

Thanks to the novel COVID-19, hospitals and healthcare facilities around the world are scrambling for ways to manage the sudden influx of thousands of sick and highly contagious patients. COVID-19’s rapid spread has made keeping up with the pandemic virtually impossible, forcing many to switch over to undertested remote monitoring systems in an effort to try to serve all patients while still freeing up beds for COVID-19 patients. 

Patients not suffering from COVID-19 are encouraged to stay away from doctors’ offices, immediate care facilities, and hospitals unless absolutely necessary, and are instead being asked to request treatment virtually. Similarly, confirmed COVID-19 patients experiencing only mild or moderate symptoms have been encouraged to treat symptoms at home in isolation to leave available beds for patients suffering with worse or more painful conditions. 

Besides helping to make basic medical care accessible to patients not suffering with COVID-19 during the outbreak, remote monitoring and wearable devices are also being used specifically for the diagnosis and treatment of the virus. Remote monitoring and wearable devices are helping to limit interpersonal contact, aiding in the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 by limiting person-to-person exposure.

Some examples of wearable and remote monitoring devices being used in the fight against COVID-19 include: 

VivaLNK Continuous Temperature Monitor

One of the common symptoms of COVID-19 is a high, persistent fever, requiring patient temperatures to be checked every few hours to track changes. Whether a patient is actively suffering from COVID-19 or hospitalized awaiting results, temperature will be an important indication of overall health and condition.

Checking for temperature requires healthcare providers to come in close physical contact with patients, putting them at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19. 

To help mitigate instances of close personal contact between healthcare providers and patients for the purposes of checking temperature, the Chinese company VivaLNK has developed a wearable continuous temperature monitor. Worn by patients at all times, these devices continuously measure body temperature, instantly allerting caregivers in case of sudden drops or spikes in temperature and reducing both the time it takes for caregivers to identify fevers and person-to-person contact. 

Eko Digital Stethescope

Another company working to make routine procedures virtual is Eko, who recently released telemedicine tools to help prevent health provider exposure to COVID-19 during pulmunary and respiratory examinations. The Eko digital stethoscope tool allows medical providers to remotely listen to lung and heart sounds, reducing their risk of exposure, minimizing transportation costs, and enabling possible COVID-19 patients to receive treatment without leaving home and exposing other individuals. 

AliveCor Mobile EKG

Though not specifically intended for the treatment of COVID-19 patients, companies like AliveCor have reported a 50% increase in business since the virus began to spread late 2019. Patients with underlying conditions are at a higher risk for contracting the novel coronavirus, and may experience worsened and lifethreatening symptoms as a result.

Unfortunately, those that are most vulnerable to COVID-19, like those with heart conditions, also often require more intensive medical care, and are regular visitors to their local hospital or doctor’s office. 

To help individuals with underlying conditions to continue to receive integral, life-saving care, services like Mobile EKG from AliveCor are more important than ever. AliveCor Mobile EKG allows patients to detect conditions like tachycardia, atrial fibrillation, or bradycardia in under a minute, right from the comfort of their own home using their personal mobile device.

Enabled for easy sharing with healthcare providers, this and other remote monitoring devices are helping vulnerable individuals get the medical care they need without risking exposure to COVID-19. 

The Future of Telemonitoring

Despite current strain on the medical industry to manage the novel COVID-19 outbreak, there is a lot of exciting stuff on the horizon of telemonitoring and wearable medical devices. New interest from consumers in personalized healthcare options is making way for more remote-testing, wearable devices, and from-home appointment options, giving patients more control over their health and wellness.

Here are a couple of exciting wearable and remote monitoring device advancements you will want to keep an eye on: 

Wearable Lab On Body

While wearables of the past decade have focused primarily on physiological signals like heartrate and blood pressure, ‘Wearable Lab On Body’ aims at monitoring both physiological activity and salivary biomarkers. The ‘Wearable Lab on Body’ could serve as an alternative to regular lab testing and doctor’s visits, providing wearers with virtually continuous monitoring and diagnostics.

According to developers of the NASA supported device, the ‘Wearable Lab On Body’ seeks to simulate the basic analytical capabilities of a laboratory and will be able to measure cognitive and emotional performance, molecular response, and behavior, providing the wearer with real-time feedback and tools for recognizing and changing unhealthy behavior. 

Biosensors

In most cases of severe cardiac or respiratory disease, deterioration is entirely preventable. Proper lifestyle changes, treatment plans, and ongoing support from health practitioners can ensure the problem does not advance, allowing patients to continue living happy, healthy lives. When deterioration does occur, it is often due to a condition going undiagnosed or untreated for long periods of time. 

Biosensors are super comfortable self-adhering patches designed to monitor and collect data on things like movement, respiratory rate, temperature, and heartrate. Though not quite ready for widespread use just yet, early research from Augusta University Medical Center suggests a possible 89% reduction in deterioration due to preventable heart and lung disease.

Creating a Connected Lab Space

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