How Medical Wearables Are Changing the Health Care Landscape

Apps and telehealth aren’t the only digital technologies changing the way people get their health care

person wearing health watch

Wearable technology is helping patients and providers stay more connected than ever—and saving money in the process

Wearables like smart watches and fitness bands came out of the gate with health benefits, incenting people to increase their fitness level, drink more water, and get more sleep. It’s why many health insurers, including Tufts Health Plan, offer members discounts on these devices.

But new and emerging digital wearables can do a lot more than count steps and take your pulse. They can detect heart problems, seizure activity, even the presence of cancer cells. Plus, they can send data directly to providers for remote monitoring. This adds a whole new level of value for patients with chronic or serious conditions like heart disease or diabetes. It’s also beneficial for elderly or disabled people who may have difficulty getting to medical appointments or seeking urgent care.

This adds a whole new level of value for patients with chronic or serious conditions like heart disease or diabetes

But the benefits go beyond patient outcomes. Wearables also have the potential to help curb the staggering cost of healthcare. Whether they’re incentivizing healthy behaviors or providing early warnings of illness or medical distress, wearables make it easier for people and their medical providers to nip health problems in the bud, reducing the need for expensive treatments, procedures, and hospital stays.

Even smarter watches

The latest generation of the Apple Watch includes an FDA-approved electrocardiograph (EKG) function.1 The app can monitor the heart’s activity for signs of atrial fibrillation and alert the wearer so they can help get medical help if necessary, potentially preventing life-threatening cardiac events. Other heart monitoring watches go further, transmitting heart data directly to medical professionals in real time. There’s also now an FDA-approved smart watch, available by prescription, for children as young as six with epilepsy.2 It immediately notifies family members and care providers when abnormal movement patterns consistent with a seizure are detected.

Biosensor patches

Biosensor patches are small wearable devices that adhere to the skin or nails and communicate data either via smart phone apps or directly to care teams. There are digital patches that monitor respiratory activity in people with asthma, measure UV exposure, and detect metabolic temperature changes in women’s breasts that may indicate tumor activity. There are even “smart pills,” which contain tiny sensors to track when patients are taking their medications.

There are even “smart pills,” which contain tiny sensors to track when patients are taking their medications

One of the most widely available types of remote monitoring sensors are digital patches that measure vital signs, which allow providers o remotely monitor patients with serious medical conditions after they’re discharged from the hospital. This can reduce the need for high-cost at-home nurse visits and minimize the risk of complications and hospital readmissions.

The future of medical wearables

Whether they’re worn on the wrist, shoe, skin or even embedded in clothing, wearable medical devices have the potential to transform the way we receive care over the next decade. In fact, the total installed base of fitness tracker and health-based wearables in the United States is expected grow at an average of 10% per year, to surpass 120 million devices by 2023.3 By that year it’s also estimated that 5 million people will be remotely monitored by health care professionals.4

At Tufts Health Plan we’re excited about the potential of wearables to make health care better and more affordable for our members and their employers. Learn about some of the consumer wearables our members can buy at a discounted rate.