CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - What is a wearable? That was the question posed by to our panelists at Biotech Connection Boston’s recent event, Big Data Gets Personal: Transforming Healthcare in the Age of Wearable Tech. While it seems like a simple question, wearable technology has different meanings to researchers, designers, consumers, healthcare providers, and insurance companies. Wearables have sparked new areas of research along with new ethical concerns and data privacy issues. Given the potential impact of this technology in healthcare, it came as no surprise that this event drew over 600 registrants, a BCB record!
Now back to the question posed by our moderator, Lesley Solomon, Executive Director of Innovation Hub at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Shahid Azim, co-founder and CEO of Quanttus, was the first to respond, saying “for us, it’s something that’s meaningful that you would carry or wear. That meaning can continue to evolve and adapt based on behaviors, needs, and physiology.” Ben Schlatka, co-founder of MC10, further defined wearables as a “soft, comfortable computer that you can put anywhere on your body that produces meaningful insight and something about physiology that helps you live a healthy lifestyle.” Michael Cima, MIT professor and co-founder of MicroCHIPS, went deeper (literally) and said that wearables can be in you, not just on you, and that they must be ubiquitous to get continuous measurements. Wrapping up the opening, Mandira Singh, Senior Business Development Manager at athenahealth, broadened the term to include both passive and active devices that gives insight not just to the user, but to other stakeholders in the user’s wellness.
Solomon then asked the panelists about the state of wearables and some of the challenges. Common themes echoed by the panelists were the need to connect technology with users and healthcare providers, identify novel and relevant physiological biomarkers, and generate clinically actionable insights. One of the audience members asked what wearable startups can do to break into the healthcare sector. Singh said that the best way is to have a clear vision of how your technology connects to the provider, and to be able to identify a return on investment. Focusing more on the technology side, Cima mentioned the difficulty in generating clinically relevant data for vital signs such as hydration. Azim also emphasized the need to not only collect data on vital signs, but to connect the dots between behavior and outcomes. Schlatka finished by saying that wearables should act as therapeutic companion devices to gain physiological insight for medication regimens.
As with any new technology, there are always challenges during implementation and adoption. When Solomon asked whether wearables will be used in acute or chronic diseases first, Azim, Schlatka, and Cima all agreed that there is a huge impact to be made in chronic diseases. Azim also said that the insights to generate the tools and analytics needed to bring these technologies into the healthcare space will most likely come from outsiders. On the regulatory side, the panelists agreed that while clinical trials may scare some entrepreneurs, these trials are necessary to generate clinically relevant evidence. Singh commented that clinical trial requirements could be better clarified across the spectrum of wearables. She pointed out an example where caloric reporting is familiar to physicians and therefore has a lower barrier to entry, but ingestible sensors (like those being designed by Proteus) make people more nervous and may therefore need more regulation. Schlatka added that there are also ways to unlock first pass clinical trial data from the clinic, rather than starting a new trial.
Another big issue was data privacy. All the panelists agreed that the user owns their data, but agreed that people would most likely be willing to opt in to programs that access their data if they are able to drive value from that data (i.e. lower health care costs). Both Singh and Cima pointed out that nowadays, no data is fully secure, and that we have to come to grips with the fact that much like financial data, wearable data is also at risk. During the Q&A the panel was further asked about data security, and Schlatka responded that while hacking into devices like pacemakers is a concern, it is unlikely that current data from wearables (like heart rate or blood pressure) will be that threatening. His opinion was that in 5-7 years, as long as we are able to extract value from our wearables, users will be comfortable with data storage in the cloud.
Looking ahead to the future, Solomon noted that the wearables market is expected to grow from $20B to $70B by 2025. She asked the panel for their thoughts on what the “Holy Grail” of wearables would be. Schlatka said that future wearables will be multimodal systems with feedback loops, much like how cars have real-time reporting systems. Azim said that whatever the holy grail is, it has to change the healthcare paradigm in some fundamental way and change reactive care to predictive/preventative care. Cima said that in order for wearables to lead to discovery, we need to be able to track vital signs (including chemical signals) and correlate them with both disease phenotypes and genotypes. Lastly, Singh said that the key is to bring design-centered thinking to the last mile of health care and produce real results by connecting stakeholders down the chain.
Wearable technology has the potential to revolutionize health care and personal wellness, but as our panelists pointed out, there are key questions about data collection, analysis, and privacy. Entrepreneurs, researchers, and health care professionals will have to come together to overcome these challenges in order to realize the potential of wearables. Once that happens and wearables are seamlessly integrated into our lives, no one will need to ask “What is a wearable” because we will already have the answer.