Wearable technology has been a hot topic among healthcare professionals for years. Numerous individuals and organizations have touted the potential for wearable health technology to improve health outcomes and reduce costs, and there is evidence to support their claims.
However, while adoption continues to grow, wearables haven’t become a mainstay in healthcare settings. Is the wearable health revolution just beginning or is it already fizzling out?
Longstanding excitement around wearable health technology
Excitement surrounding wearable health technology has existed for a while. By the mid-2000s, medical device developers, providers, and researchers had begun salivating over the potential for devices that could remotely monitor health.
At that time, wearable health technologies were still in their infancy and not as accessible as they are now. However, even in their earliest stages of development, wearable technologies received attention for their potential to improve health on a large scale.
In 2004, researchers from Stanford University and NASA were developing LifeGuard, a remote health monitoring device. Although LifeGuard was being developed for astronauts, growing interest in this kind of technology was due to the fact that it could be worn by anybody. Providers could use it to monitor patients with pacemakers, athletes could track performance during training, and paramedics could learn valuable information in an instant when responding to calls.
Consumers see potential in wearable health technology
By the early 2010s, astronauts weren’t the only ones donning wearable health devices. As more individuals integrated more connected devices into their daily lives, they increasingly began using applications to digitally track their health. In 2013, 21% of adults were using some form of technology to track health data, the Pew Research Center reported.
When it comes to wearables, it seems people are more excited about being able to improve their own health than any other reason for using them.
In a 2014 survey of 1,000 consumers, the consulting firm PwC asked how they would use a wearable device - 77% said they would use it to exercise, 75% would use it to track medical information, and 67% would use it to diet. Comparatively, only 46% said they would use it to find retail deals, 32% to control home appliances, 29% to access entertainment, and 26% to access social media.
In a follow up survey published in 2016, PwC asked consumers about their interest in using a wearable device to share information with different types of businesses and organizations. Nearly two-thirds reported interest in sharing information with doctors’ offices, hospitals, or health insurance companies.
Excitement in smart devices isn't limited to wearable technology. Consumers have generally reported interest in using their smartphones to track health information and communicate with providers. Around one-half of patients have used their smartphones to share information with a provider or to track health, fitness, or medication according to a recent survey by communications firm Ketchum.
What’s holding wearable health technologies back?
Back in 2004, some were predicting that wearable health technology would lead to profound changes in healthcare within a few years. In the years since, market researchers have issued numerous reports saying that widespread adoption of wearable devices is just around the corner. However, that hasn’t been the case.
If market indicators reflect excitement around wearable health technology, that excitement might be waning. Wireless device developer Fitbit had a market capitalization of more than $10 billion in early 2015, but that dropped to $3.7 billion earlier this year, according to a report from The New York Times. Jawbone, another wireless device developer, saw its valuation drop from $3 billion in 2014 to $1.5 billion earlier this year as well.
However, the wearable device market is still growing. The worldwide market for wearables increased by 171.6% in 2015, according to market research firm IDC.
Believe the hype?
After all these years of excitement and hype, why isn’t the use of wearable health technology more widespread? There are several barriers to adoption.
One of the biggest barriers to consumer adoption is cost. When asked what factors would play into a decision not to purchase a wearable device, cost was the top choice of respondents in the 2016 PwC survey. Despite reporting interest in health tracking capabilities of wearable devices, respondents also wondered whether they would actually use them. Less than one-half of wearable device owners used their device every day in a 2014 survey by PwC.
Privacy concerns are also preventing consumers from more comfortably using wearable devices to track and share health information. Although many seem excited by the possibility of using wearables to share health information with providers and payers, only 34% of individuals who responded to PwC's 2016 survey said they would trust a health insurance company with this information, 38% said they would trust a hospital, and 41% said they would trust a doctor’s office.
Other barriers to widespread adoption include the ability to secure health information collected by wearables and complaints over the general user experience, according to an article published in PLOS Medicine earlier this year.
The potential for wearable health technology is still there. If the various challenges can be navigated, wearables could develop a more meaningful role in improving health outcomes.