Wearables and digital healthcare in the context of COVID-19

11-Feb-2022

Dr Chris Vincent, principal for human factors and ergonomics and sector lead for healthcare at design and innovation consultancy, PDD, explores the vital role wearable devices have had over the past 18 months and how they will help to address the post-COVID backlog

End user spending on wearables hit more than £67billion in 2021, an 18% increase on the previous year

End user spending on wearables hit more than £67billion in 2021, an 18% increase on the previous year

Since the onset of the pandemic, technology has played an incredible and vitally-important role in combating and managing COVID-19.

New and innovative devices and applications have helped to track infections, empower healthcare providers and patients alike, and connect humanity in a way we haven’t seen before.

If we look at wearable technology specifically, even pre-pandemic, these devices had already started to play a pivotal role in the lives of patients and caregivers.

From the management of chronic conditions, through real-time monitoring, to making sure that we drink enough water; wearable and mobile devices have been revolutionising the way that healthcare is managed for years.

New and innovative devices and applications have helped to track infections, empower healthcare providers and patients alike, and connect humanity in a way we haven’t seen before

But the development of such technology during COVID-19 increased and accelerated progress exponentially.

Wearable popularity and new innovations

As the world scrambled to find solutions for the many obstacles that came with COVID-19, recognising the benefits of both digital healthcare and wearables, especially when it came to reducing the pressure and the workload of the NHS, it’s interesting to look back at what was achieved.

We also look to the future and the growing role of wearables and connected systems in the prevention and management of chronic conditions.

A year into the pandemic, Gartner predicted that, worldwide, end user spending on wearable devices would total £67billion in 2021, an 18.1% increase from £50billion in 2020, due to consumers’ increased interest in their own health.

And, with this, opportunities for new product developments and tech advancements opened up like never before, with a range of technologies coming out which lent themselves to helping the public stay safe and, ultimately, making life easier and more streamlined for those living through the pandemic.

Wearable devices weren’t just about enabling people to monitor their SpO2 levels having caught COVID-19; they played a pivotal role in prevention.

One example is Immutouch – a smart band that vibrates when users touch their face, potentially preventing them from catching diseases.

After downloading the Immutouch app, the band could be calibrated by bringing the hand closer to the face, causing the device to vibrate, thanks to a gravimeter placed inside that used a personalised algorithm.

This type of solution proved helpful for those working in a frontline healthcare role, and it also aided those working in customer-facing industries like retail, manufacturing, and public transport.

Digital tools also helped when the goal was to provide public health information, or to respond to requests for information.

Wearable devices weren’t just about enabling people to monitor their SpO2 levels having caught COVID-19; they played a pivotal role in prevention

For instance, the Japanese chatbot, Bebot, supported crisis workers by giving members of the public instant information about COVID-19.

The chatbot doesn’t require an app and popped up offering clear information in multiple languages to people visiting Japan, as soon as they connected to a public Wi-Fi.

A final example is that of Mojo, a company that created the world’s-first smart contact lenses with built-in displays.

Created by optometrists, medical experts, and technologists, Mojo lenses helped users access important notes without the distraction of a mobile device.

The lenses also displayed health-related information, such as heart rate, and navigation and sight-enhancement features.

Throughout the pandemic, this type of technology meant that it could support and deliver communication without the need to touch an interface or mobile device.

And there is a much-broader purpose in supporting sterility and infection control within hospitals in general.

Innovative design in healthcare

When it comes to the design of wearable technologies, whereas previous interests would have been on whether someone can use a device, we are now also interested in aspects around the fit of the device in a broader ecosystem.

This includes maintaining continued use, co-evolving technology, and the effective adaption of intervention content to changes, either in technology or the world in general.

This was particularly the case when considering the rapid changing events that occurred during COVID-19.”

As an example, PDD is exploring wirelessly-connected drug delivery systems alongside the use of digital apps and sensors to improve patient experience and condition management.

In addition, the development of algorithms can help to determine if people are compliant with this type of technology, through sensors that can be worn on the patient’s body and detect movements continuously on a 24/7 basis.

The road ahead might be complex. However, the opportunity for wearables to have a positive impact in our healthcare ecosystem in the long term is well worth the investment

Although there are many off-the-shelf solutions which fulfil this need from a technical perspective, customised solutions can offer many benefits especially as it relates to comfort, compliance, and long-term wear.

The use of sensors not only helps us to determine aspects around lifestyle, but also to understand the suitability of alternative solutions and the extent to which users are prepared to keep a device attached to themselves for extended periods of time.

We have developed our own innovations in terms of attachment, including adhesives and materials research to find a solution that can be as unobtrusive as possible.

Work has also included the research of current designs, concept development, refinement and visualisation, early-stage modelling and two stages of user testing.

Our wireless solution adds value in allowing for long-term use and wear, improved compliance, and rich data, while being minimally apparent to the user.

A solution for everyone

With wearables becoming more popular within healthcare we need to remember that they will be used by a wide range of users from those who are digitally literate to those who are technology averse.

Therefore, it is important to consider and research the varying user needs to ensure that what is developed fits a variety of user profiles.

At the same time, we need to consider aspects relating to data protection and privacy.

Given the amount of data that is available through the use of wearables and the complexities relating to data storage, consent, and management – there is a need to adopt a carefully-designed process when it comes to research and development.

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The road ahead might be complex. However, the opportunity for wearables to have a positive impact in our healthcare ecosystem in the long term is well worth the investment.