Sixty percent of Americans are tracking and sharing the most intimate details of their bodies — think: weight, diet, exercise — using devices such as wristbands, watches, Google Glass and contact lenses.

The United States Federal Drug Administration (FDA) recently released draft guidance on what wearables they will and won’t regulate. USAID has funded an adhesive bandage wearable that monitors a person’s vital signs to help track and treat Ebola patients in West Africa. Research firm IDC predicts that by 2020, 70 percent of healthcare organizations will be deploying wearables to better engage their constituents.

Wearables are also raising almost as many questions as the amount of data they’re collecting. Innovation experts hashed over a head-spinning array of issues on a recent episode of SAP’s Coffee Break with Game-Changers entitled, “Health Wearables – Just Hype or Revolutionary for Patients?

1. Are wearables a passing fad?

Joe Miles, Global Vice President of Life Sciences at SAP, said that market dynamics are already showing wearables can impact quality of life. He predicted sales of wearables will approach 130 to 150 million units by 2018, splintering off into fitness for improving personal performance and health care to reduce the cost of chronic problems and improve physician protocols. Reh noted that venture funding in wearables has increased five-fold over the last four years.

2. Can wearable data be trusted?

Lynne Dunbrack, Research Vice President at IDC Health Insights, related how some tests have revealed inaccuracies where trackers have been off by about hundred steps. “If you’re talking about tracking steps, it’s probably not important that it be accurate because it’s not a matter of life and death. But other biometrics, certainly you want to be spot-on accurate,” she said.

Greg Reh, Principal at Deloitte Consulting, and lead of the firm’s global life sciences practice, thinks new technologies like ingestibles and advances in skin monitoring will boost the data accuracy of wearables.

“A lot of the current wearables are notoriously inaccurate,” he agreed. “But as the technology becomes more sophisticated and the data accuracy becomes more usable, that is certainly going to be a harbinger for broader adoption.”

3. Can wearables change behavior?

Dunbrack was optimistic about the transformational power of wearables, noting that 75 percent of health care costs derive from chronic conditions exacerbated by smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise.

“Wearables can really help consumers measure how much exercise they’re getting, and make small improvements one step at a time,” she said. “By being able to change these health behaviors, we can actually make great improvements in terms of health, particularly around chronic conditions.”

Reh cautioned that studies indicate wearable adoption uptake is quick but usage drops precipitously after a two to three-week time span. “Ensuring that the patient or user sees value in it is a key aspect that many are starting to think about in a more robust way, particularly for users that really need that kind of monitoring that we’re talking about versus more of the social aspects of many of the applications that are out there.

4. Bragging rights aside, what’s the real value?

One of the biggest questions about wearables is how to use the vast amounts of collected data.
One of the biggest questions about wearables is how to understand and securely use the vast amounts of collected data.

Beyond the Fitbit celebrity flash, these experts painted some compelling use cases. Miles talked about how physicians can improve healthcare in rural parts of Africa.

“The ability to have a cell phone that can capture simple biometrics in a patient situation, whether it be just a check-up or whether a diabetic type of patient, and then to be able to have a conversation and interaction with a physician who might be in one of the major cities, it starts to expand that envelope of care, and get care out to the outer reaches,” he said.

In addition, Dunbrack said that adult children in many parts of the world would pay for devices that offer peace of mind. “They need to know that their parents are coping with the activities of daily living, haven’t been hurt, and if they have, are getting the help they need.”

5. What about physician liability?

These panelists agreed that liability is top of mind for healthcare providers whether the device is regulated by the FDA or not. “The real concern is that something has happened and a patient sent over this data and the physician didn’t act upon it. So what’s their medical liability for that?” said Dunbrack.

6. What good are terabytes of data?

Miles talked about the potential to incorporate anonymous patient data from wearables into medical research. “Patients are allowing their information to be anonymously incorporated into research scenarios…and devices themselves become so indistinguishable and really become part of the fabric of your clothing or of your cell phone, and you’re able to benefit from that interaction with really little or no effort on your own part,” said Miles.

Wearables are hot, no question about it. But thoughtful discussions and policymaking are rapidly replacing the euphoria, and that’s a good harbinger for the lasting benefits wearables can bring.

Listen to the podcast:  “Health Wearables – Just Hype or Revolutionary for Patients?

Follow me @smgaler

Photos: Shutterstock