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Sept. 2, 2015: IEEE Computing Now

Wearable Technology in Medical Applications and Healthcare

The medical and healthcare sector, primarily characterized as "digital health," represents the single largest opportunity for the wearable technology industry. Patients want it, some physicians are embracing it, insurance companies are starting to fund some of it, regulators are approving some of it and companies - big and small _ all want in. The healthcare sector presents some of the largest and most fundamental problems that society faces. IDTechEx forecasts that the healthcare, medical, fitness and wellness sectors of wearable technology will be worth $30 billion by 2025.

Healthcare is by far the most complicated ecosystem of the areas that wearable technology will impact. This article will focus on back health applications, including issues related to posture, pain and growth, for example. From developing and maintaining posture as a preventative measure against back pain, to training exercises in the form of therapy, to spinal motion characterization, there are many solutions that are already, or will soon be, available. This is one of several prominent areas to broadly adopt many different wearable technology solutions.

Evolution of Back Pain Solutions

First, let us look at the problem that needs solving: Two easy clicks from the American Chiropractic Association homepage lands you on a page entitled, "Back Pain Facts & Statistics", complete with facts emphasizing the size of problem that society faces. "80% of the population will experience a back problem," corresponding to "one-half of all working Americans … each year," or "31 million Americans … at any given time." This kind of statement should sound familiar to those who have been at countless investor relations pitches and read reports on the subject.

This means that the use of wearable technology (of sorts) in the treatment and prevention of back problems is nothing new. Depending on how the sector is defined, solutions from the use of crude mechanical braces to correct posture, to the more common and modern elastic solutions that can be purchased over the counter today, can all be included. But as the solutions become electronic, more familiar wearable technology products enter the landscape. Perhaps the most famous of these are activity/posture trackers such as the Lumo Lift or Up-Right. These use commodity electronics, like accelerometers or other motion sensors, that give real-time feedback, in a solution currently coined as "trainables." With minimal regulation required, and often significant lasting impact for the users after just a few hours or days of use, these devices provide a solution with lead times much more typical of the consumer electronics sector.

When one moves into the rehabilitative space, a new set of solutions emerge. Valedo is a medical device used to provide live feedback during back rehabilitation exercises. With direct medical implications, the level of regulation here is higher than for the posture devices. This kind of device is enabled by improved power consumption in transmission technology, as well as a broad network of mobile phone and tablets that acts as ubiquitous, high-performance, wireless-enabled user interfaces for these sensor-based devices.

A third category is in the monitoring and characterization of back motion. Bainisha provides skin-patch-based solutions for measuring motion with high accuracy. Bainisha's platform illustrates many of the properties that make wearable technology so attractive in the long term. Thin, flexible, transparent, and near-invisible, the platform sets new standards in both form factor and sensor data quality.

Different Products; Different Challenges

These illustrate three very differing product strategies in the same disease vertical. While the sensors (IMUs and stretch sensors) remain very similar in each product, the time to market, required investment, margins, regulatory process and target markets differ for each. Consumer products have lead times of 3-6 months, whereas medical devices can take 8-10 years to go from idea to product. Solutions for the broad healthcare space span that whole gap, so product developers need to understand the lead times and investment models in order to achieve sustainable success.

This large diversity of problems and potential solutions leads to an incredibly diverse player ecosystem. While they deliberately steer clear of press and analysts alike, the key players here are the medical device manufacturers. They have been moving to more practical (e.g. thin, conformal, portable, automated) solutions for many years, and control the medical device market. Their standard for successful products can turn around vast revenues, such as Medtronic's MCT device, the SEEQ, which is expected to make $ US 1 billion in revenue in one year. The device, developed at Corventis as the NUVANT pre-acquisition, is used to detect and analyze cardiac arrhythmias. They have the expertise, and will make successful wearable technology solutions as a logical extension of their current business.

Everybody Wants a Slice

But the strategies to enter this space as a new market are more varied and interesting. Apple collected over two years of medical and fitness data prior to the launch of its watch, and continue to study many areas relevant to healthcare. Google's life sciences activities have seen them develop contact lenses, partnering with pharmaceutical companies. The division has grown under GoogleX, and will soon be spun out under new holding company, Alphabet. Qualcomm launched their Tricorder XPrize, which has seen entries from over 39 countries, and will conclude in March 2016. Novartis is actively working with companies developing new sensors and digital health platforms, investing heavily in companies including Proteus Digital Health. GSK is assessing potential opportunity, with its Innovation Platform Technology & Science (iPTS) division in the UK working to use wearable technology to support clinical trials. Even manufacturing giants like Flextronics and Jabil have weighed in, via acquisitions and active development programs.

Therefore, while the pie is large, everyone wants a slice. Add regulatory processes that are both challenging and evolving, lead times that require significant investment, a seemingly inevitable 'technology push' overlooking the 'clinical pull' and the complex funding structures - and this area is quite far from an easy win. However, the space is large enough for there to be multiple winners. With healthcare expenditure at 10% of global GDP, this will only rise as the population expands and ages. The global healthcare system requires constant and significant investment to stay ahead, and wearable technology is a crucial part of the solution.

Learn more at The IDTechEx Wearable USA event in Santa Clara, California, Nov. 18-19, 2015.

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