Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Wearables Are Generating A Tsunami Of Useless Medical Data

Posted by Tom Foremski - December 12, 2016

At a recent media roundtable discussion about the future for wearables, hosted by Vivalnk, I was sitting next to two doctors who have been working in this field as advisers.

They told me they don't know what to do with all the data that patients keep sending them from their wearables, heart rate, steps taken, etc. And some wearables collect data on biometric data that's unknown to medical science. 

All of that big data and it has no medical value. I was astounded.

"We know how to interpret EKG data but we don't know what to do with all the different types of data that are being collected. We can't make medical recommendations," said Dr. Jeffrey Olgin, Chief of Cardiology at UCSF.

It requires extensive analysis and the data requires context for it to become useful in improving medical outcomes.

There's another problem that has to be solved before the Big Data analysis can be done.

"Consumer wearables are not medical grade devices and so we can't tell if they measure data the same way," said Dr. Vernon Smith at Avera Medical Group. Medical grade devices have been calibrated and tested for accuracy and consistency. This is not true for consumer wearables and many users have noticed inconsistent data between wearables.

"What does a thirty minute spike in your heart rate mean? Is your ten thousand steps enough exercise? What does your temperature fluctuation mean? We don't know yet," said Smith.

"And this will also have to be taught in the medical schools so doctors know how to respond to their patients data."

The doctors said that they loved wearables and the massive amounts of data that are being generated but it could take several years before the medical insights are discovered.


"A few years to complete the studies is a long time for a startup but it's very short compared to drug trials," said Olgin.

But will people continue to buy wearables if their medical value won't be realized for several years?

Jiang Li, VivaLnk CEO, says, "There's many types of value from wearables, a lot of people get satisfaction from the data and it can motivate them towards more healthy activities."

VivaLnk, which is focused on developing comfortable wearables that can provide continuous and wireless monitoring, has developed a flexible and very thin electronic circuit board called eSkin, that is designed to sit comfortably on a person's skin and monitor a range of biometric signals.

It's found in VivaLink's first commercial products: a continuous temperature monitor called Fever Scout that provides medical grade temperature readings; and Vital Scout for monitoring a person's stress and health. Each sends continuous biometric data wirelessly to your smart phone.

Li said that the lack of medical grade wearables will change over time and that his company is focused on working with experts in the medical community to produce new wearables that can provide medical grade data that is accurate and usable.

Foremski’s Take: For the next few years there won’t be much medical benefit to wearables until we get those big data studies done. And that means there is a danger that all that data collection could be derailed if wearables are seen as a fashionable fad with no medical value and consumers stop wearing them.

However, wearables won’t go away although they will certainly change their look as in the fashion industry. And a technology like eSkin is flexible and thin enough to slip behind whatever is hot that season. They'll all become cheaper and will melt into the framework of our daily lives.

The potential impact of wearables on healthcare will be extraordinarily powerful but there’s a lot of work still to be done. And we haven’t even talked about how to do the behavior modification which is the ultimate goal of all of this.

Carrot is the stick…

Behavior modification is harder than collecting biometric data, so will wearables have a role here? Possibly, as long as it is the carrot and not the stick.

The doctors tell me people will not wear any thing that gives them an unpleasant jolt, as I had proposed.

So what type of carrot can wearables provide as an aid in behavior modification? A pleasant warm glow and a gentle pat on the back? 

The obvious carrot will be feeling good by saving money on life insurance and other services, if people opt in and share their wearables data. However, that carrot quickly looks a lot like a stick if companies can raise prices, cherry-pick and discriminate between people based on the data from their wearables. And there’s no HIPPA protection on that data. 

Medical benefits will take years to manifest themselves but insurance companies  can get immediate benefits from that data. The value is unevenly distributed. These types of discrepancies need to be addressed or they will slow the development of wearables markets.

 

 

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