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Wearable tech is changing the health care game

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Wearable technology is making huge leaps in the healthcare industry by applying machine learning algorithms that can check for heart disease, sleep apnea, and even detect diabetes, which was previously only detectable through analysis of blood and urine.

Technically, eyeglasses or a wrist watch can be considered wearable technology — the first calculator wristwatch was made in 1975. But medical technology as we know it took off during the present digital age. Statista predicts wearable tech devices will increase from 325 million in 2016 to over 830 million in 2020. And sales for wearables will outpace PCs, laptops and tablets by the end of this year. Apple, Lenovo and Garmin are the leading vendors of smart watches already, capitalizing on fitness and health care trends for growth. Fitness devices dominate the wearable market. Unity Stoakes, a contributor for Forbes, notes “The sky is the limit when it comes to wearable tech in healthcare and potential innovators extend way beyond activity trackers.”

In 2008 the FitBit wristband was a pioneer in wearable fitness technology, allowing users to track steps, measure distance traveled, calories burned, etc. Now, the potential for collecting and analyzing the data that these devices collect has enormous consequences for society, and a handful of companies are taking advantage of the opportunity.

Cardiogram, an application company dedicated to the future of preventive medicine, works with the devices of companies like, Android Wear, Fitbit and Apple Heart to collect data for the measurements that wearable devices records. Cardiogram offers free applications for companies to collect data from device sensors. It uses the same neural networks that Google uses for its speech-to-text application, and repurposes it to interpret heart-rate and step-count data. They also produce a baseline reading from known diabetics, using the data as a "signature" to identify the disease in people who otherwise may not find out without traditional testing.

Diabetes Sentry uses another method to detect diabetes: skin-contact sensors that monitor body chemistry (perspiration and body temperature). These readings are coupled with millions of points of data, providing a pattern over a period of time that is very accurate for detecting problems or potential problems for those at risk of the disease. Their wearable device sounds an alarm when those conditions are met. The system is only used for glucose levels that are dropping, and heart rate data is also collected.

MYIA Labs is another company pushing wearable tech even further, using sensors placed under the bed to track heart rate and respiratory levels while a person sleeps. And Kardia Band, which uses a finger pad attached to your smart phone, sends an email to you and your doctor when signs of atrial fibrillation or abnormal heart rates are detected.

These technological developments are seemingly welcomed by the healthcare industry and consumers. With the additional information, consumers can be more engaged with their health level. The real-time and continuous monitoring capabilities of wearables will also save lives, using data to predict when a person is at increased risk of events like heart attacks. And the technology may enable patients to make immediate changes in behavior where applicable. Doctors will have more data on their patients and the data will be easily accessible, which could translate to fewer doctor visits, lower preventive medicine costs and more lives saved.

As promising as this new technology may be, a trip to the doctor’s office is still the best method of discovering and tracking potentially damaging health issues, obviously. Technology is simply giving the patient a larger role in their health care. The constant interaction can help motivate users to make critical changes in real-time and address the behaviors and habits that may be detrimental to their health.

There could be uses to raise for concern, though, such as where the data actually stored and who has access to it. And, as usual, there's always the threat of hackers who may try steal or change the integrity of the collected data. For now, though, the technology has come a long way in just a few years, and the future looks exciting for an industry that has been much maligned for the high cost of health care.

Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at thruss09@gmail.com, and his photography at thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com.


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