While the healthcare industry may be notoriously slow for adopting new technologies, that resistance to change also shields it from the boom and bust of fad products with poor market fit. The ones that survive leave a lasting impact on the healthcare tech space. Most of these innovations remain, for the most part, out of the public eye – but in recent years, the progressive miniaturization of technology has enabled increased accessibility and availability for individuals to monitor their personal health, from personal wearables to prescribed equipment for monitoring chronic illness.
Wearable health tech has been around in various forms for over a decade, measuring anything from blood pressures to blood glucose levels. Still, they’ve existed most recognizably as wireless sensors designed to track various fitness metrics, like heart rate and daily step count. Starting with something as simple as pedometers, wearable health tech was seen as something of a “fad” until the late 2000s, with the rise of Fitbit and the $10.3 million raised by Pebble on Kickstarter.
Concurrently, the growth of cloud infrastructure & services and the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic have spurred the development of many new monitoring solutions, the majority of which are likely to stick around long after we’ve achieved a “new normal.”Today, companies like Garmin and Fitbit are some of the biggest names in the space, and today’s fitness and health trackers are almost unrecognizable next to their 2012 counterparts. These wearable devices collect metrics like steps taken; hours slept, elevation climbed, and even use GPS to draw out maps of where the user has walked, using Bluetooth to send that data to a user’s watch or phone before syncing up elsewhere via WiFi or cellular for storage and more sophisticated analysis.
Besides its application in the consumer space, wearable health tracking has powerful implications in medical care. Wireless vitals monitoring equipment is rapidly transforming how we engage with medical staff in ambulances, hospitals, and homes. Enabling fast (and sometimes remote) access to EEGs, blood pressure, and more, these health tracking devices collect actionable data in real-time, giving health professionals data to make more effective decisions faster.
Regulations on Wearable Health Tracking in Medicine
Despite their prevalence and pervasiveness, wireless technologies are not free from regulation, which is doubly true of wireless medical devices. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for overseeing and certifying public use of Radio Frequency (RF), including Bluetooth, WiFi, Cellular, RFID, UWB, and LoRa.
This applies to standard consumer devices like smartwatches and fitness bands not intended primarily for medical use. The FCC coordinates with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate wireless medical devices – most of which are considered Class 1 (a low to moderate risk to patient health & safety) – to ensure that products entering the healthcare space are safe and effective.
Chief among these restrictions is the minimization of potential for harmful interference and ensuring compliance with human RF exposure limits. While the complete list of rules and regulations is long and tedious, the primary takeaway is that the devices on the market, particularly the hospital devices, have been vetted rigorously before being approved for use and pose no additional risk to health and safety.
Beyond Passive Data Collection
While data collection is the most simple and straightforward application for everyday use, it is neither the only one nor the most impactful. Devices like Apple Watch and Life Alert leverage built-in sensors and buttons to generate additional alerts and insights, informing EMS in the event of a severe emergency and potential injury and reducing response times.
Although healthcare has yet to match the degree of technology adoption and sophistication that we encounter in our everyday lives, innovation continues at a steady pace, with no signs of slowing down. If anything, it has been accelerated by catalysts like COVID-19, and we can be sure to see more exciting innovations gain traction in the coming years.