Posted: 10 Nov. 2022 8 min. read

Left to our own devices: Can wearables keep us healthy?

By Glenn Snyder, principal, MedTech Practice leader, Deloitte Consulting LLP

It was great to see so many friends and colleagues last month at AdvaMed’s annual Medtech Conference in Boston. I was honored to lead a panel of industry luminaries discussing the effect wearable devices could have on the future disease management.

The medtech industry has been paying close attention to the evolution of wearable devices. My first wearable device was a wristwatch. All it did was tell the time, but it was as much a part of my attire as my socks and shoes. After I bought a smartphone, however, there was no longer a reason to wear a clunky piece of metal around my wrist. My smartphone displayed the time, plus it allowed me to check emails, send texts, and surf the internet. I carried it everywhere. A couple of years ago, I decided to try a smartwatch. Now I no longer have a reason to keep a clunky piece of technology in my pocket. I can receive texts and emails on my watch, and the alarm feature noiselessly buzzes me awake in the morning. Outside of these utility features, this wearable device provides high- and low heart-rate notifications, displays my speed and elevation when I go mountain biking, and can call for help if I crash and need emergency assistance. Although I like to monitor my activity level, the data generated by my watch has little impact on my health or lifestyle choices. But wearable devices are becoming increasingly more sophisticated and could become essential tools for people who have a chronic illness such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

Diabetes, for example, is primarily a self-managed disease, and patients must deal with the physical burden of regularly measuring glucose levels, noted panelist Apurv Kamath, senior vice president of global marketing at Dexcom, Inc. This physical burden can cause a psychological burden. He suggested that wearable devices could reduce both the physical and psychological burdens by helping the patient more easily manage the illness. Data generated by a device could also provide the care team with deep insight into the patient’s health. Dexcom is a diabetes care technology company.

Half of us now have a device for health

According to Deloitte’s latest survey of health care consumers, people are using fitness trackers and health-monitoring devices more than ever. Nearly half of the 4,545 people we surveyed (49%) use wearables, digital assistants, or smart devices to measure fitness/health improvement.1 That’s up from 42% in 2020 and 28% in 2015. About one-third of consumers said they use a wearable device to monitor health issues (e.g., blood sugar, blood pressure, breathing function, mood), up from 28% in 2020 and 24% in 2015.

Data generated by a wearable device could eventually provide care teams with a more holistic view of their patients, particularly when that information is integrated with traditional clinical data. It also could encourage consumers to modify their behaviors by providing feedback in real-time. Nearly 80% of our device-wearing respondents said the devices helped change their health behavior (e.g., eating, sleeping, fitness).2

In The Future of HealthTM that Deloitte envisions, we expect several key areas—scientific breakthrough, behavior change, data sharing/interoperability, equitable access, and empowered consumers—will collectively transform the existing health system from treatment-based reactionary care to prevention and well-being. The panel discussed each of these topics in the context of wearable devices:

  • Scientific breakthrough: While the technology has advanced significantly in just a few years—from counting steps to detecting irregular heartbeats—we have only scratched the surface when it comes to the potential of wearables, said Alissa Hsu Lynch, the global lead of MedTech Strategy & Solutions at Google Cloud. Although these devices are generating enormous amounts of health data, there was a consensus among the panelists that devices are not yet producing actionable insights. Data generated by wearables needs to be in a format that a clinician can easily access and use, they said.
  • Behavior change: With each increase of 1,000 steps (in average daily step count), the risk of type 2 diabetes falls by more than 25%, according to Amy McDonough, one of Fitbit’s first employees. She told attendees that the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us research program leveraged Fitbit data and found that daily step counts are associated with a significant reduction in the incidence (and time to event) of many other chronic diseases, including sleep apnea, obesity, major depressive disorder, and essential hypertension. Amy currently serves as managing director and general manager of the division now called Fitbit Health Solutions.
  • Interoperability: According to Deloitte’s 2022 Consumer Survey, a majority of respondents (55%) said they are willing to share personal health data with a physician. However, just 4% of the 660 physicians we surveyed have integrated such information into electronic health records (see Giving physicians more time for patient care). A lack of interoperability is a key reason that so few physicians use patient-generated data. Alissa noted that data-interoperability standards don’t yet exist for health devices, which can make it difficult for physicians and care teams to access the information and use it for analytics, insights or artificial intelligence and machine-learning. Addressing data interoperability is critical to unlock the value of patient data to better inform care and to deliver more personalized support to improve disease management and prevention, she said. Google Cloud and Fitbit recently announced the release of their Device Connect for Fitbit solution to address the interoperability challenge.
  • Equitable access: Information is a determinant of health and can help lead to better and more equitable care, Alissa said. (More than 1 billion health-related searches take place on Google each day!) She noted that Google Search now has built-in features to help people find and access appropriate care, including identifying in-network care providers. Amy added that access to affordable technology can help reduce inequities in health care by improving access to care providers. She noted that many people can’t afford to spend $100 or more on a device but said Fitbit is working on ways to incorporate wearables into chronic care management so that they can be covered by Medicare Advantage and other programs.
  • Empowered consumers: Eating healthy, staying active, managing weight, and getting enough sleep are critical not only for management of chronic diseases but also for disease prevention, Alissa said. Amy added that more than 60% of chronic conditions can be impacted by lifestyle changes.

I currently use my smartwatch to track activity. The information is interesting, but not terribly useful. However, as I get older, and as the technology gets better, I suspect I will rely on wearable devices to help keep me healthy and to spot potential health issues before they occur. Every major medtech company and device manufacturer should evaluate the role wearables could play in their portfolio going forward. 

The executives’ participation in the panel was solely for educational purposes based on their knowledge of the subject and the views expressed by them are solely their own. This article should not be deemed or construed to be for the purpose of soliciting business for any of the companies mentioned, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse the services or products provided by these companies.

Endnotes:

1 Deloitte’s 2022 Survey of US Health Care Consumers

2 Deloitte’s 2022 Survey of US Health Care Consumers

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