Can Wearables Reduce Healthcare Costs?

Can Wearables Reduce Healthcare Costs?

$9 trillion—that’s the price tag of healthcare costs worldwide, much of it stemming from the western world and most of it consumed in the U.S. And this figure continues to grow at 2x to 3x the rate of inflation. How can we better control these staggering costs?

One answer lies in wearables, noted Andrew Baker during his talk at this year’s Sensors Expo conference in San Jose, California. As managing director in Maxim’s Industrial & Healthcare Business Unit, Baker has a front-row seat on how far wearable technologies have come and what more needs to happen for these devices to make a dent in lowering healthcare costs and, most importantly, improving outcomes. In his talk, “Still On Track to Revolutionize Wearable Healthcare?” Baker highlighted the evolution so far for wearables.

“A yearly checkup is not really going to get it done,” Baker said. “Through continuous monitoring, we can get way better insight on what’s going on in our health.”

Right now, healthcare essentially follows a centralized approach, where people typically visit the doctor for annual checkups or when they’re not feeling well. The continuous, real-time monitoring made possible by wearable devices can facilitate a more distributed, personalized care model, with remote monitoring helping to improve short-term and long-term outcomes outside of the doctor’s office, Baker explained. Good outcomes, in turn, should result in lower costs, he said.

Smartwatches and other wearables can be used to provide medication reminders, monitor chronic conditions, and support other healthcare functions that could help lower healthcare costs.

Wearables for Clinical Use

Activity trackers represent a popular consumer wearable. These are now taking on some of the health and well-being functions that were once primarily in the realm of their clinical-grade counterparts. In fact, electrocardiogram (ECG) measurement has been recognized as clinically relevant by cardiologists and regulatory bodies in various countries have approved some of these devices for clinical use.

To enable new use cases for wearables, designers need to think about:

  • Battery life. How long do you want your device to last and what do you want to measure? The answers will influence battery size and product design.
  • Accuracy as it relates to the quality of the signal measured.
  • Clinical performance, so users can rely on—and trust—their devices.
  • And small form factor. The battery tends to dominate the space available in a consumer wearable, yet smaller devices fit more conveniently into daily lives. There’s a need, then, to balance low power with a small form factor suitable for the targeted use cases.

“With all good things there are tradeoffs,” Baker noted. “If you want longer battery life, you may actually compromise on measurements or you may compromise on form factor.”

Whether the device monitors for the short term (such as for atrial fibrillation) or the long term (such as checking glucose levels in diabetics), “it’s really all about empowering the consumer,” said Baker. A few years ago, the talk on wearables was about step counting and measuring resting heart rate. Now, there’s a shift in mindset toward prevention, early detection, and chronic disease monitoring. Complementing this shift is a move toward providing actionable insights versus just information gathering. “It really is a powerful thing in terms of making sure you try to find things before they become a serious issue,” he said.

Market researcher IDC projects that global wearable shipments will hit 222.9 million this year and potentially reach up to 302.3 million units by 2023. As we look into the future of wearables, Baker said, the talk is turning toward making these devices somewhat invisible. By “invisible,” Baker was referring to passive harvesting, where the device collects data without requiring any user action. By contrast, capturing an ECG reading typically requires device wearers to touch their finger to the device for several seconds.

Reference Platforms to Accelerate Wearable Design

Concluding his talk, Baker highlighted key technology platforms to address health and well-being via wearables:

  • Bio potential
  • Temperature
  • Power management
  • Optical
  • Electrochemical

Maxim has a long history of developing solutions based on these key platforms. To accelerate new use cases, the company offers designers data-collection tools and reference platforms such as:

  • Health Sensor Platform 2.0, an evaluation and development platform in a wrist-worn wearable form factor that demonstrates the functions of various health-sensing products. It integrates a PPG analog front-end (AFE) sensor, a biopotential AFE, a human body temperature sensor, a microcontroller, a power management IC, and a 6-axis accelerometer/gyroscope. This platform earned two awards at Sensors Expo: Best of Sensors as well as Embedded Computing Design’s Best in Show Award for Medical Sensing.
  • MAX-HEALTH-BAND, a wrist-worn heart-rate and activity monitor that simplifies extraction of highly accurate vital signs and raw data from health sensors for wearables. It includes an optical pulse oximeter/heart-rate sensor, a wearable power management IC, and motion-compensated health sensor algorithms.
  • MAX-ECG-MONITOR, an evaluation and development platform featuring a clinical-grade AFE for analyzing data and accurately tracking heart signals, temperature, and motion. Designers can use this platform to quickly develop ECG-based applications with its embedded algorithms or to collect raw data to develop their own custom health sensor algorithms.

So, Baker asked his audience, are we still on track with wearables? “Yes,” he said, “but there’s still a lot to be done. In order to make wearables really useful and try to slow down that $9 trillion dollars, there’s still a lot of innovation to be made.”