From the brightly coloured Fitbits, to the plethora of health apps available for Apple’s iWatch, it’s easy to see how the global market for wearable technology is on the increase, and how it’s fast becoming the new craze.
According to analyst Gartner, 274.6 million wearable electronic devices will be sold worldwide in 2016, generating revenues of $28.7 billion – $11.5 billion of that from the growth in smart watches. Demand for wearables — which include wristbands, smart garments, chest straps, sports watches and other health monitors — is being driven by consumer fascination in quantifying personal health metrics, but it also opens up a world of opportunities to the wider healthcare and pharmaceutical industries.
In line with the evolution of patient–centricity, wearables have enabled us to become personal data creators, with constant streams of fitness and medical information being generated of our own volition. The question is, can this be harnessed by the healthcare industry to drive efficiencies and enhance products and healthcare services in the long term?
Apple thinks so. It launched the Apple CareKit this year: software that makes it easier for individuals to keep track of care plans and monitor symptoms and medication, with the ability to share that information with doctors or family. It delivers the promise of empowering the patient and personalising their care – patient centricity at its very best.
Apple also offers a ResearchKit, providing a software framework for apps that enables medical researchers to gather robust and meaningful data. Interestingly in July 2016, GlaxoSmithKline launched a rheumatoid arthritis study, called PARADE, and an iPhone app using Apple’s ResearchKit, demonstrating the first time a drugmaker has used the open source software framework to conduct clinical research, Bloomberg has reported.
The vital signs are good
Wearables are being put to use wherever we look, including in the NHS, which has endorsed wearable use in its own trials. In partnership with Diabetes UK and Hewlett Packard it is deploying mobile health self–management tools (wearable sensors and software) for people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes to self–manage their condition. The devices feed data back via the internet to allow more timely intervention from peers, healthcare professionals, carers and social networks should their help be required.
Evidence to date suggests that wearable technology is plugging a gap in our knowledge. Hospitals are deploying wireless monitoring so that patient’s vital signs are automatically and continuously fed back to clinicians. Furthermore, sensors are now available that automatically measure and store glucose readings removing the need for finger pricking. But can it really help us as market researchers to better understand the patient journey?
Utilising biometric data in healthcare research
It seems the application for data derived from wearables has increasingly more value in the healthcare research process as the technology improves and becomes more reliable. Their potential lies in their inconspicuousness – we forget we’re wearing them, and they provide access to an un–simulated world of responses to everyday events to either back up or refute what we think we know already.
In July 2016, a prestigious US cancer centre, The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), announced their plans to evaluate wearables and other mobile technology to assess cancer patients’ quality of life.
They plan to use activity trackers and mobile apps to study patterns of movement and sleep with much greater precision. Patients taking part in the project will be asked to wear a wearable activity tracker for one to seven days prior to treatment to establish baseline measurements, they will then be continuously monitored for approximately four months over four cycles of the prescribed therapy. And they will also be able to report quality–of–life measures — such as activity level, fatigue and appetite
What do HCPs and pharma think?
We carried out self–funded research in March of this year, that was presented at the BHBIA Conference (May 2016), which looked into HCPs and pharma’s views on wearables in healthcare.
We devised a short ten minute survey tasked with identifying current perceptions of wearables and the collection of biometric data and how this might change in the months and years to come.
The next big thing?
The results demonstrated that the use of wearable devices is already quite apparent, especially amongst HCPs. Two thirds currently make use of biometric data for personal reasons outside of work, which we found surprisingly high. But when you factor in the use of standard health applications on mobile devices, this may help to explain things.
Over 40% of HCPs use biometric data for work–related purposes, but this is much lower for pharma.
Again this seems high, but perhaps this supports increasing examples of patients bringing in their data on their devices to help inform consultations?
68% felt that biometrics from wearables could provide improved accuracy vs biased patient recall and just over half thought that patients could feel more empowered. So there is the additional benefit here of wearable technology improving health literacy and at the same time reducing the growing burden on the NHS.
The data from wearables could provide the reassurance to patients that even between consultations that their vital stats are being monitored. But less than half of participants felt that biometric data from wearables could provide a trigger for intervention – and indeed raises the legal issue of liability should anything go unnoticed.
But beware of flat lining
There could be a very bright future for wearables at the centre of healthcare research, but there are many issues to address first. We need to consider just how accurate is the data from wearables. Not to mention the issues surrounding use – at the very least does the patient own a device and have they worn it at all times without tampering or hindrance? There are ethical issues around the data, gaining approval and ownership of the information generated. And of course, if we see a problem in the data, should we report it or not? There are still many unanswered questions.
So what’s in it for me?
Biometrics collected from wearables could potentially offer an exciting future for qualitative research – helping us to determine what is actually happening instead of what patients tell us is happening. For example, if we are carrying out a qual interview with a patient and are discussing mobility of a patient, data from their wearable device could help us to verify whether the patient has been as mobile as they say they have been.
From a quant perspective, biometric data from wearables could feed into online segmentation studies. For example, does segment A exhibit a higher heart rate and greater sleep disturbance? In this instance biometric data could be collected to help facilitate the analysis process and test additional hypothesis that at present are very difficult to test.
And of course, there is the potential for biometric data to be collected alongside our on–going tracking studies — to monitor how important metrics are changing over time and to identify periods in the day/ week/ month where patients exhibit peaks and troughs.
A healthy future ahead
Wearables are unlikely to ever entirely supersede traditional market research, but it’s clear their use for wider healthcare research purposes is on the increase. They currently provide a valuable tool to use in conjunction with more traditional methods of research by offering context —putting clinical data into a more relevant light and further personalising the patient journey.
Could the collection of biometric data provide you and your teams with a new, previously inaccessible, form of insight that may help in further understanding the patient experience? We’ll leave this thought with you…