Lisa Schulmeister, RN, MN, APRN-BC, OCN®, FAAN
Editor-in-Chief OncLive Nursing
Oncology Nursing Consultant, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Nursing
Louisiana State Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, Louisiana
Like many nurses, I look at the veins in the forearms of cashiers, restaurant servers, and any other arms that appear in front of me, and lately I’ve noticed that many people are wearing a fitness tracker on their wrists. These devices have exploded onto the marketplace and some predict that they’re in their infancy and will become even more sophisticated in the future. They’ve also become addictive; we all know people who check their fitness trackers until they’ve reached the magic 10,000 steps in a day.
In addition to tracking the number of steps a person takes in a day (and in a week and longer), many of the trackers also perform monitoring functions, such as tracking heart rate and sleep quality. Wireless syncing allows the data to appear on a smartphone or computer. There are even scales that transmit a person’s weight directly to another device, and this information can be stored and/or sent on to healthcare providers.
The Health Research Institute of PricewaterhouseCoopers (www.pwc.com
) surveyed consumers and found that one in five owns wearable technology, and about half wear the technology every day. The survey found that the top three pieces of information consumers want from wearables are health-related: 77% want wearables to increase activity, 75% want them to collect and track medical information, and 67% want wearables to help them eat better. Adopters of wearable technology tend to be younger, more affluent, and tech savvy. However, the survey also found that 80% of the general population is familiar with at least one wearable device on the market today.
Potential benefits of wearable technology include reducing obesity, improving sleep quality, prompt detection of health issues, and ongoing monitoring of vital signs or medication adherence, for example. However, experts note that information without action is meaningless. Wearable technology is only effective when people act on the information provided. Drawbacks and concerns about this technology include vulnerability to security breaches, dependence on technology, and further decline in personal social interactions. In healthcare, this could mean fewer in-person clinic visits, as patients transmit health data to their healthcare providers and receive a response electronically or by phone.
Employers and insurers are taking notice of the impact of wearable technology. Some have begun to pay for the technology, or incentivize it (eg, the employee is reimbursed for a fitness tracker after walking a required distance). The Walgreens pharmacy chain has a program where customers can transmit their fitness data to Walgreens in exchange for points that can be used in the stores to buy products. The Apple Watch, equipped with a heart-rate sensor and accelerometer, has an activity app that tracks minutes standing and calories burned, and has a workout app, which provides information about activity. A companion app on the iPhone shares the data with researchers.
Some of the wearable technology products in development with applications to healthcare include the Google X smart contact lens, which has a tiny electronic circuit and microchip embedded in the lens that measures the person’s blood sugar level in tear fluid and transmits the data to a smartphone or other device. The Google X nanoscale “cancer hunters” are nanoparticles in a pill that make their way into the bloodstream to attach to cancer cells. Patients wear a device that creates a magnetic field that pulls the particles to a place where they are counted.
The Sunfriend is a watch-like device that measures UVA and UVB exposure, which has the potential to decrease skin cancer incidence. HyGreen and Biovigil are devices that are in development to improve hand hygiene compliance and effectiveness by “reading” hand cleanliness. The Propeller Health GPS-enabled inhaler has location sensors to track the time and place of each use of the inhaler, and provides data to better identify asthma attack triggers. We can expect to see these devices, and more, in the future.