Healthcare Wearables: Pharma Can Lead Where Tech Companies Fear to Tread

Tech firms are jumping into healthcare wearables feet first. From the Jawbone Up to Microsoft’s Healthband, the Fitbit Surge and Apple’s Watch, every week seems to see the launch of a new gadget that snaps onto your wrist or ankle and offers to map your run, count your pushups, track your heartrate, monitor your calories or even your exposure to UV light.

According to Wired Magazine, as of October 2014, there were 266 wearable devices on the market, 118 of which tracked fitness. All of these cloud-powered, data-smart gadgets use micro-electromechanical systems – chips with circuitry that detect and measure temperature, pressure, speed, light, direction and other physical properties. Young, healthy, and largely male engineers are developing apps and gadgets for likeminded individuals already very aware of their performance and looking to enhance it.

While tech companies focus on helping the affluent and tech-savvy get even fitter, this presents an unprecedented opportunity for Pharma to innovate and to lead. Tech companies simply cannot do what Pharma does so well: literally centuries of understanding the patients, caregivers, healthcare professionals and the regulations.

The market for Healthcare Wearables can potentially dwarf fitness by hundreds of billions of dollars in annual sales. So far this year $2.8 billion has been spent on wearable devices. That’s expected to grow to $8.2 billion in the next 5 years. Think of it this way: if you took all the fitness bracelets and smart watches sold in 2014 and multiplied that retail number by 6, it still wouldn’t match the $6.3 billion US market for blood glucose strips.

At the Wearables + Things conference in Washington DC, Kabir Kasagood, director of business development for Qualcomm Life, urged developers to “move away from fitness and go hardcore into health.” It’s time to “go from the children’s table to the grownup table. If you’re serious about this, embrace the FDA. Learn how HIPAA works. Make sure it’s connected to the EMR and that all the health laws are observed.”

Kasagood’s argument makes sound sense. The people who could benefit from the innovations of healthcare wearables are not the super-well, but the chronically unwell: patients with one or more chronic conditions that need regular monitoring. These individuals are most likely to actually use their devices because they have real needs invested in them.

A survey by the Pew Foundation found 45% of American adults have at least one chronic condition. While just 19% of people with no chronic conditions track their health indicators, 40% of adults with one chronic condition do so, and 62% of adults with two chronic conditions do so.

In stark contrast, research shows healthy people actually stop using their wearable gadgets as soon as the novelty wears off. Over half of US consumers who have owned an activity tracker no longer use it. A third of them took less than 6 months from unboxing the device to letting it gather dust or giving it away.

Four Healthcare-first Wearables

  • Not quite healthcare-first, but Heapsylon’s Sensoria smart socks will have both fitness and healthcare applications. They not only map heart rate data but also provide very detailed information on how the person uses their foot when they walk: where on the foot they put pressure, how often they are unbalanced and risk injury. They aim to eventually license their product for use in diabetics as an early warning system alerting patient and physician to the risk of nerve damage in the feet, which can lead to amputation.
  • Force Impact Technologies is building a mouth guard that measures the force of hits to the head. The device lights up when it detects enough force to cause a concussion.
  • MJFF, the actor Michael J.Fox’s charity for Parkinson’s disease, is working with Intel (whose former chief executive, Andy Grove, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s) to use smart watches to track and measure the disease’s symptoms and progression. Traditionally, Parkinson’s patients find it very difficult to comply with tracking their own symptoms. Later this year, they’ll launch an app that will let patients report on the medicines they take and how they feel.
  • Wearable Intelligence has developed an app that works with Google Glass to improve and train physical therapists. The app guides a therapist through a specific set of exercises for a specific patient. It offers exact instructions on things like amount of flexion and limb rotation. The training session is recorded on the camera and gives a check mark “OK” when all the steps have been accomplished.

There’s little doubt that apps and healthcare wearables are going to be prescribed with increasing regularity by physicians. In the UK, the NHS already has a list of approved apps that doctors can prescribe for patients. Healthcare wearables will allow patients to monitor their own health data and assess their own progress towards goals like quitting smoking.

The next challenge the industry faces is how to deal with the huge amount of data that will be generated once vast numbers of patients start using this technology. In this next phase, reliable, approved gadgets will be needed to take personal-data-tracking from a hobby to the next level: becoming a normal part of daily life for sensible people.

As life sciences and high tech converge, Pharma’s challenge is to bring its unique strengths to the fore and to become a leader in this arena.