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4/12/2012
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Forget Google Glasses: Meet Wearable Health Monitors

Some gadgets do cool tricks and some save lives. Seamless integration with Bluetooth 4.0-enabled smartphones brings tiny devices worn beneath garments, watching the well-being of the elderly, student athletes.

Telemedicine Tools That Are Transforming Healthcare
Telemedicine Tools That Are Transforming Healthcare
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Interest in wearable health monitoring devices is growing, partly because of new, standardized wireless technology that makes long-term use of these devices more practical.

The Mayo Clinic, for example, has partnered with Preventice to develop a miniature wearable device that monitors irregular heart rhythms and uses a smartphone or fixed hub to transmit the data to healthcare providers. The device, now in clinical trials in the United States and Europe, is worn beneath clothing and measures heart and respiratory rates.

Last fall, AT&T agreed to provide the wireless network for Zephyr's FDA-approved BioHarness. The BioHarness, inserted in Under Armor shirts, has been used to measure college athletes' vital signs, heart rates, and temperatures.

At the time the Zephyr agreement was announced, Glenn Lurie, president of AT&T's emerging devices division, told InformationWeek Healthcare that he saw potential uses for these wearable devices for consumer fitness and first responders' applications. He also predicted that they might be used in childcare and to help seniors "age in place."

Another company, BlueLibris, pitches its wearable devices to healthcare providers and HMOs. BlueLibris says its systems can be used for mobile medication reminders, fall detection, activity and location monitoring, and vital signs monitoring.

Currently, fitness and wellness applications are the main drivers of the wearable device market, according to Jonathan Collins, principal analyst, wireless health and machine-to-machine, for ABI Research, a London-based firm. Collins told InformationWeek Healthcare that he expects that to remain true for at least the next five years.

[ To find out which medical apps doctors and patients are turning to, see 9 Mobile Health Apps Worth A Closer Look. ]

Nevertheless, he sees a bright future for wearable devices in remote patient monitoring, home monitoring, inpatient settings, and "aging in place" strategies for seniors. Last year, ABI released a research report, "Wireless Health and Fitness," that provides more details about this emerging market.

The miniaturization of wireless connectivity has provided a major impetus to the development of wearable devices, Collins said. Wearable devices are also well adapted for monitoring patients with chronic diseases. "The data can be collected in a way that's simple and easy for the patient and for healthcare providers," he said.

The breakthrough in this area has been the recent introduction of the Bluetooth 4.0 standard. The wearable devices that use this standard are very low-powered, meaning that they can run for a year on a single battery; earlier Bluetooth devices used more power, and their batteries had to be replaced every week or two.

In addition, Collins noted, Bluetooth 4.0 "is a standard platform that device manufacturers and app developers can use. And the other key is that it brings connectivity to mobile handsets [phones]." This stands in contrast to the earlier generation of wearable devices that operated on proprietary platforms and used direct cellular connectivity or required users to tell their phones to transmit data. With the new ultra-low-power, short-range communications devices, data can be sent continuously as long as the user keeps his or her smartphone on.

Bluetooth 4.0 works only with the latest Bluetooth-equipped devices, such as the iPhone 4S and the new iPad. But Collins noted that some fixed "gateways," which are wireless hubs that transmit data, are now equipped with Bluetooth 4.0, as well.

The vendors with proprietary systems, including Garmin, Adidas, and Nike, have focused on the fitness market, he noted. People who use fitness applications like to share their exercise feats with others, he said, so these apps tend to incorporate social networking--a reason to transmit the data rather than just viewing it.

Down the road, Collins forecast, there will be a hospital market for wearable devices. Patients will wear wireless monitors that will track their vital signs from the time they enter the hospital until they're discharged. With patients no longer tethered to bedside monitors, "workflow can be managed more effectively around the mobility of the patient," he said.

The home medical monitoring market for wearable devices will probably be second only to fitness, Collins predicted. Wearable devices can help people care for themselves at home, sending signals to family members or caregivers when their physical condition worsens. These devices, he added, will use fixed gateways, rather than smartphones.

The 2012 InformationWeek Healthcare IT Priorities Survey finds that grabbing federal incentive dollars and meeting pay-for-performance mandates are the top issues facing IT execs. Find out more in the new, all-digital Time To Deliver issue of InformationWeek Healthcare. (Free registration required.)

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