Are invisible wearables the future of health tech?

Analysts believe a world where we can’t see the sensors and technology monitoring our health is just around the corner.

By Zoe Lester

Wearable health tech is everywhere, just look at the number of people with FitBits or Apple Watches. At the same time, there is a shift to mobile in the health industry, with more and more startups digitally tackling common medical problems. While most current wearables are used for fitness, not as medical tools; the problem the health apps face is how to get accurate, real-time data. Is there a way to combine the two to create a powerful health wearable that can help patients, doctors, and the NHS? Analysts believe so. But the solution needs to be invisible health wearables that seamlessly combine with the human body to prevent the risk of people taking them off.

This article explores how the analysts got to this conclusion, starting with a look at some of the health start-ups that are trying to change the game. Here are some current health apps:

Echo

Echo is a free service that lets people manage repeat prescriptions from their phone.

How it works

  1. The app connects patients with their NHS doctor and surgery
  2. Once set up, they can order repeat prescriptions in two clicks
  3. The in-app tracker tells them when to order more, and gives reminders on when and how to take medication

Marketsize

  • This is a UK app
  • According to Echo, 50% of UK adults take repeat prescriptions.

Challenges

Not everyone will want medication notifications popping up on their phone, as it could reveal sensitive health issues. For the same reason, there may also be a reluctance to admit to using Echo. Which means there’s a risk that Echo could become the app that everyone loves but doesn’t talk about. This could affect feedback and development of their service.

Ada

Ada uses AI technology to offer diagnosis support for those feeling unwell. It describes itself as a ‘personal health companion’. The app takes into account country-specific treatment e.g. that malaria is treated differently in the UK to Nigeria.

How it works

  1. Users complete a profile of their age, gender, weight, country of origin, height, medications taken, and allergies
  2. If they feel unwell, Ada asks them a series of questions to identify potential causes
  3. Ada provides potential diagnosis, advising how conditions can be treated at home or whether they need to see a doctor

Marketsize

  • This is a global app.
  • 1 in 20 searches on Google are for a diagnosis, highlighting the need for this service

Challenges

Rigorous questioning is required to establish a potential diagnosis, which leaves the app susceptible to human error. Maybe someone forgot to mention they were in a country before they got diagnosed, that they’ve lost their vaccination record, or simply can’t remember their medical history. These factors can affect the diagnosis.

111 NHS Digital

111 NHS Digital gives fast advice to people with urgent but non-life threatening medical concerns. The main aim is to make sure that people who need urgent treatment can be connected to the right services.

How it works

  1. Users answer a few questions about themselves and their symptoms
  2. The app advises on what care is needed and what to do next
  3. The app can put patients in touch with a medical professional, call an ambulance, or advise on self care, as appropriate

Marketsize

  • This is a UK app – currently only available for people living, working, or passing through the London boroughs of Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Haringey or Islington
  • 1 in 20 searches on Google are for a diagnosis, highlighting the need for this service

Challenges

The app helps to manage the increasing demand on 111 NHS telephone services, but it is often hard for people to determine whether something is considered urgent or not. Therefore both the 111 NHS app and telephone services risk being used for non-urgent medical concerns. Crucially, many people still use 999 for non-life threatening medical concerns. So there is a need to educate and change national behaviours to make contacting 111 an instinctive action for UK residents. A final challenge centres on gathering user research. It’s almost impossible for people to be interviewed in high distress. So NHS digital ask them to recall stories after the incident. This risks people forgetting to pass on feedback, which could be used to improve the service.

While these apps have paved the way for the future of health tech, the challenges they face means they can only do so much. Wearable tech could take this further by providing instant data gathering, but not all patients will want to wear obvious health tech all the time. However, once it’s taken off, it interrupts the continuous monitoring that creates intelligent and actionable data. The solution, according to Fast Company, is for health companies to develop invisible wearables to bridge these gaps.

How invisible wearables can help

Invisible wearables will create a future where we do not see sensors or technology; they are seamlessly integrated within the body or clothing. Already devices are being planted in people’s brains to capture data. Medical device innovators are betting millions of dollars in the belief that invisibles will change behaviour, help people stick to new treatments, and create a better dialogue between caregivers and patients.

A recent Ted talk called Meet the SixthSense interaction shows how an invisible wearable prototype can capture metadata in new seamless and ‘invisible’ ways. The device is combined with mobile, which acts as the central computer. It has a camera to track all gestures and understands their meaning. Rather than using a physical phone, users can make a gesture of a camera and it will take a photo. The camera not only understands movement but also objects in the user’s hand, right down to the specific book they are holding.

The uses are endless. With a projector, any surface becomes a device. We will no longer need to take our phone out of our pockets and open an app to record something. It is seamless and in achieving this makes technology more human and more in sync with our natural behaviours. In the case for health tech this is just a starting point, but the prototype gives clues as to where this is heading.

Designing invisible wearables

According to Fast Company, developing invisible wearables will require a shift in how designers think about wearable tech. Rather than creating something that persuades a person to interact with computers/devices, designers need a solution that turns someone into a body computer.

Tips to design invisible wearables

  • Understand users’ habits and ceremonies to fully understand where to blend new behaviours
  • Focus on the value and the meaning and less on the device. Reduce interaction with devices. Users prefer less device interaction
  • If possible, bring ambient intelligence into the mix that is anticipatory and context-aware
  • Eliminate friction between technology and people. Reduced friction will have a big impact on adoption and ease of use

Applying this thinking to address frictions in current apps

Invisible tech could deal with many or even all of the challenges currently facing health apps. Implanted chips could extract accurate health data for diagnosis purposes, and provide extra information, for example, heart rates or oxygen levels. It could also alert the patient to what would be the best service for them to contact – 111, 999, GP etc. These alerts could be private in-ear notifications, avoiding the risk of sensitive health issues being revealed to others.

These are just a few ways invisible wearables could revolutionise the health industry. The current apps are doing a great job at moving health tech forward, but they are stepping stones leading to the bigger picture; a world in which technology is seamlessly combined into the human body to better protect and care for patients.

Learn more about health tech and invisible wearables:

Background

This article came out of a UX Crunch event about transforming healthcare.

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