Covid-19 Impact on Wearable Technology in the Healthcare Industry

Covid-19 Impact on Wearable Technology in the Healthcare Industry

  • Healthcare
  • May 25, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has shifted innumerable perceptions regarding daily activities as well as has led to a significant reassessment towards well-being and protection. On the other side, it represents lucrative opportunities to novel healthcare solutions including wearable technology. The pandemic has triggered a fear of infection from not just the virus but other neglected elements that impact health. The adoption of wearables and accompanying apps has escalated significantly as it helps the users to feel aware and protected. Moreover, as normal life is thrown out of control, these wearables restore a sense of control by providing real time information of health signals.

Since the outbreak of the COVID 19, the sales of fitness tracking wearables have increased exponentially. The observation of the benefits of wearable health gadgets is not just limited to users, but health-care providers and payers as well. This growing demand for wearables is expected to persist even after the outbreak is controlled expanding the scope of the market.

WEARABLES IN DEMAND

Wearables technology products have been accepted well in the consumer medical tech field but the healthcare industry has questioned their utility beyond heart rate tracking and for more crucial applications of healthcare. This means that the market was limited to consumers and healthcare providers till now.

The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic has expanded the role of wearable technologies in the healthcare industry. Several companies operating in the wearables space across other domains are eager to enter the landscape of wearables to be used as early warning systems for the virus infection.  One such example is the Ava Bracelet. The device has experienced success as a fertility tracking wearable whose sensors are now being leveraged to aid in combating the coronavirus. The bracelet is capable of tracking heart rate variability in addition to heart rate, skin temperature, and breathing rate making it useful in tracking the symptoms of the virus infection. The company’s chief medical officer, Maureen Cronin, said that the bracelet’s capability of remote continuous monitoring offers a unique opportunity during the outbreak. This ability of the bracelet in combination with symptomology, can be useful in triage of candidates for testing by predicting the highest probability. This can prove useful for the overwhelmed healthcare providers and governments to allocate resources more efficiently when a large number of people are isolated with symptoms. As the resources for on-floor testing are finite and are testing is presumed dangerous for health workers, remote monitoring wearables can be of immense help.

She also stated that the device is being put to use for tracking clinical symptomology where the users are sharing the data using an app. It is provided to a call centre where medical students are filtering people based on the information and physicians are making recommendations on triage of the users. The experiment aims at accessing the overall impact of using the wearable device and remote monitoring on reducing the burden on the system.

Remote monitoring complemented with separate, dedicated medical instruments in a hospital will help the health workers when proximity to infected patients pose a risk to them as well as other patients in the vicinity.

Wearable device manufacturers are also offering all-in-one solutions for remote monitoring. For instance, in response to COVID-19, Life Signals, a California based wearable manufacturer have increased the production of its multi-parameter sensors. The company’s Biosensor Patch 1AX can record heart rate, temperature, ECG, movement and respiration rate. The information regarding the metrics is displayed to the user in real-time through an app. The system also offers security of online data sharing with health authorities. This is useful in remotely monitoring symptomatic patients. Another sensor from the company named Patient Management Biosensor Patch 2A monitors recovery of the coronavirus patients by measurement of clinical-grade vital signs and storing them including SpO2. This wearable is expected to be launched in June and aid healthcare providers in remote monitoring of the patient’s vitals in real-time.

The disposable smart patches by Life Signals are affixed on the chest and can be worn for up to 5 days. The disposability of the patches is also useful in reducing cross-contamination across healthcare staff and thereby reducing the burden on hospitals with remote options. It is also functional for patients as the sensors will alert them with real-time data in case of deterioration are noticed and prompt action can be taken.

The economic struggles of businesses in addition to the ordeal of social distancing of the general public has led to increased demand for mental health services during and after high stress and anxiety situations of the COVID 19 pandemic. The limitations of human contact and lack of resources to meet the demand has boosted the already booming online therapy and apps. Although the novelty, complexities in continuous usage and cost of current wearables for mental health are posing challenges, it is definitively a lucrative market set to witness growth after the COVID 19 outbreak. The scope of the market is not limited to adults but children and young adults as well. For instance, the digital health firm Healios has updated the ThinkNinja app with specific content for children and young people aged 10 to 18 years. The app aims at addressing the struggles related to mental strength and coping techniques during the COVID-19 upheavals.

Pulse Infoframe is a health informatics and analytics company has developed the healthie software solution whose data stored on the platform can provide employers with visibility into the state of mental health of employees. Wearables can also be useful in collecting data to support studies of mental health for similar platforms.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR WEARABLES

COVID-19 has also presented the challenge of asymptomatic infections. The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine estimates that 5% to 80% of those testing positive for the virus may be asymptomatic. In these cases, symptom-based screening is completely futile and poses the risk of missing out on a significant chunk of this demographic. These carriers pose a public health risk unknowingly.

Hence, healthcare researchers are making efforts to identify minute fluctuations to normal bodily functions indicative of an infection using wearables. This can prove useful in cases where the person does not show any signs of the infection. There are several studies being conducted to explore the potential of different consumer wearables in identifying COVID-19 infections.

Stanford Medicine researchers and their collaborators are aiming for prediction of the onset of the infection through data collected from wearables. The collaborators include the wearable bracelet giant Fitbit whose smartwatches and other wearable devices are providing data for the study. The team is attempting to create an algorithm that will provide alert when the immune system is fighting off an infection. The success of the algorithms will lead to development of devices that will help to curb the spread of the infection and add to the growth of the market. Professor and chair of genetics at the Stanford School of Medicine, Michael Snyder, PhD, have stated the aim of harnessing data from wearables to identify infections potentially before the occurrence of symptoms.

OTHER WEARABLES

Canada based company, Skiin develops and markets smart clothes with built-in sensors that enable remote monitoring of patients’ vital signs and eliminate the need for hospital visits. The smart clothing sold by the company has built-in sensors for continuous vital sign monitoring and is washable. The clothing is capable of tracking activity, stress level, temperature and sleep quality. The product portfolio includes underwear, shirts, and sleep masks for men and women.

PMD Solutions, an Irish company, offers wearable devices for respiratory monitoring that have proved helpful in tracking the breathing parameters of patients with coronavirus. These devices are useful for both enable healthcare providers at a patient’s home. The devices leverage innovative algorithms to aid hospital staff taking necessary measures by retrieving a patient’s vital information. The flagship product of the company is the wearable sensor RespiraSense. Moreover, the sensor has also proved useful in interventions in conditions such as worsening pneumonia, respiratory compromise, oncoming heart attacks and others.

A UK-based startup, MediBioSense develops wearable patches that are Class IIa medical devices, and are certified both by the FDA and CE. The sensors conduct real-time monitoring of a wide range of vital signs in conditions such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, and hypertension. The sensors collect data related to respiration rate, ECG, heart rate, blood oxygen level (SpO2) and temperature.

A range of other wearable technologies in healthcare industries have the potential for market growth as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak primarily by aiding remote monitoring for healthcare providers. These include cloth-based nanosensors (US-based Nanowear) and anxiety reduction wearables (U.S.-based Lief Therapeutics) amongst several others.

WORKPLACE LEVEL CONTACT TRACING

The need to maintain social distancing to avoid the infection from the virus has led to stigma among people related to overcrowded places. In addition to entertainment venues, the stigma is expected to impact workplaces as well. Workplaces are usually located in a crowded building and standalone offices can be considered crowded in themselves. The fear of contacting the virus at workplaces has opened opportunities for wearable technologies for workplaces for contact tracing.

New York based Estimote has developed wearables for workplace-level surveillance for COVID-19. The company has leveraged its technological expertise in Bluetooth location beacon to develop these devices. The devices called Proof of Health wearables help in enhancing workplace safety for those who have to be co-located at a physical workplace when the risk of contracting the virus persists.

While several companies are working on technology-based solutions for contact tracing, by using data gathered by smartphones and consumer applications they have their limitations. These include privacy implications and necessity of a smartphone which may not be viable in high-traffic environments. However, contact tracing at hyperlocal level will not just provide employers with early warning signs for curbing the spread earlier but more thoroughly. In fact, larger-scale contact tracing fed by sensor data could inform new and improved strategies for COVID-19 response.

The government mandates for social distancing are up and running and predictions indicate that these might continue for several upcoming months. The severity of COVID-19 may vary across the world, but it has definitely created a market for workplace safety. Similar devices may prove to be of crucial importance in running businesses and operating in workplaces to protect the health and safety of the employees incurring those risks.

MOST ATTRACTIVE MARKETS

Asia Pacific is region is expected to be the most attractive market with the growth of several companies and increasing purchasing power of the population in the region. Moreover, a significant share of the large population in the region is known to be early adopters. For instance, in order to monitor COVID-19 patients, Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center (SPHCC) leveraged California-based connected health startup VivaLNK’s continuous temperature sensor and Cassia Networks aimed at reducing the risks of caregivers being exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Cassia’s gateways and IoT Access Controller provided long-range connectivity needed to cover multiple rooms in the SPHCC and allowing up to forty Bluetooth Low Energy devices to be paired and connected. The system was used to receive real-time patient data from the sensors and wirelessly transmit this data to a nurse's station for continuous monitoring. Seven other hospitals throughout China in addition to the SPHCC are currently deploying the network with additional deployments in other medical centers.

The COVID-19 outbreak has led to the mushrooming of devices and gadgets developed by start-ups in the region. The need for preliminary testing has led to the demand for contactless thermometers as the existing inventories are depleting. For instance, the Smart Temporal Thermometer from Withings is among the companies has depleted. It is a contactless thermometer that uses sixteen sensors to take over four thousand measurements in two seconds. The thermometer syncs to a mobile app and costs $99.95. The high cost of the existing products and increased demand is expected to augment the market for other wearable devices for contact less temperature monitoring.

The Hangzhou-based MegaHealth Information Technology Co observed a fivefold increase in its sales this year as compared to the last quarter of 2019 owing to the company’s medical ring for monitoring blood oxygen levels and heart rate. The company’s CEO, Hu Jun mentioned that the product was targeted towards patients of breathing problems. However, the outbreak of the coronavirus has expanded the market. The company offers the products to healthcare providers only. The current customer base of 100 hospitals in China with expansion plans to the U.S. and Europe in the second half of the year by increasing production rates. The company also plans on expanding to the direct to consumers segment.

Codoon (Chengdu Music Information Technology Co.), a fitness app and gadget provider observed three times increase in the number of users exercising at home. The company has added a thermometer function to its fitness watches in response to user and government demand. Founder and CEO Bo Shen mentioned that following the governments encouragement, they have created a new complementary app for AI temperature-measuring system. He also mentioned that he believes gadgets with personalized programming will have an edge over others in sustaining user interest and hence, they are investing more in software.

The maker of Xiaomi’ s popular fitness-tracking bands, Huami Corp, examined the sleep data from July 2017 to February 2020 from 115,000 users in China provinces including epicentre of the COVID-19, Wuhan and the neighbouring Anhui. A detectable deviation was observed by the company in reported sleeping heart rate. Other Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou has shown similar spikes as the virus started spreading to them. Huami Corp is now developing an early-warning signal to point out similar anomalies during COVID 19 pandemic and other future anomalies impacting the mental health of the population.

CONCLUSION

It has been observed historically that new technologies and trends emerge after major incidents such as the two World Wars and the Spanish flu outbreak. The impact of the novel COVID 19 virus is expected to leave a long-lasting impact as well. The outbreak of the COVID 19 virus has led to people grappling with uncertainty around the infection and its treatment. The virus poses risk not just to human life but has caused economic distress and severe emotional strain. This has created a domino effect giving rise to new sets of needs and necessities that were not required earlier. After the pandemic subsides, major transformations are expected in the field of health-care including a general shift towards online services and enhancement of home health-care. The capacity of the healthcare systems globally is suddenly under the pressure of being exhausted as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Moreover, the market of wearable solutions that measure and monitor the health conditions of chronic, non-coronavirus patients are also expected to witness significant growth as they aid in reducing the overall burden on healthcare providers.

The market for wearable technology has experienced growth as the demand for contactless interactions increased. Fitness-tracking devices, devices to measure other vital signs and their accompanying apps are being taken more seriously than ever by users, insurers and health-care providers alike as a tool for preventive and proactive maintenance of health. As new demands emerge, collaborations between wearable device makers and healthcare institutions are expected to increase to combat the current scenario and to prepare for similar circumstances in the future. Manufacturers of wearable technologies for various applications are anticipated to expand into other possible areas. The existing consumer wearable technologies and the data they collect have the potential to make significant technological breakthroughs during the COVID 19 outbreak. The regions of the world with large populations of working age, technological prowess and low cost of manufacturing have tremendous edge for exponential growth and innovation in terms of meeting the demand for novel necessities including connectivity of the general public, contact-tracing programs, and online provision of healthcare services as much as possible. Hence, it can be concluded that the market for wearable technologies are expected to grow significantly while playing a major role in the transformation of conventional healthcare service provision.

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