Dark side of wearables: Tsunami of useless medical big data

Millions of consumers have been buying wearables designed to collect biometric health signals but doctors say it will be years before they provide real medical benefits.

At a recent media roundtable discussion about the future for wearables, hosted by Vivalnk, I was sitting next to two doctors who have been working in this field as advisers.

They told me they don't know what to do with all the data that patients keep sending them from their wearables, heart rate, steps taken, etc. And some wearables collect data on biometric data that's unknown to medical science.

All of that big data and it has no medical value. I was astounded.

"We know how to interpret EKG data but we don't know what to to do with all the different types of data that are being collected. We can't make medical recommendations," said Dr. Jeffrey Olgin, Chief of Cardiology at UCSF.

It all requires extensive analysis and the data requires context for it to become useful in improving medical outcomes.

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There's another problem that has to be solved before any Big Data analysis can be done.

"Consumer wearables are not medical grade devices and so we can't tell if they measure data the same way," said Dr. Vernon Smith at Avera Medical Group.

Medical grade devices have been calibrated and tested for accuracy and consistency. This is not true for consumer wearables and many users have noticed inconsistent data between wearables.

"What does a thirty minute spike in your heart rate mean? Is your ten thousand steps enough exercise? What does your temperature fluctuation mean? We don't know yet," said Smith.

"And this will also have to be taught in the medical schools so doctors know how to respond to their patients data."

The doctors said that they loved wearables and the massive amounts of data that are being generated but it could take several years before medical insights are discovered.

"A few years to complete the studies is a long time for a startup but it's very short compared to drug trials," said Olgin.

Fads come and go...

Will people continue to buy wearables if their medical value won't be realized for several years?

Jiang Li, VivaLnk CEO, says, "There's many types of value from wearables, a lot of people get satisfaction from the data and it can motivate them towards more healthy activities."

VivaLnk, which is focused on developing comfortable wearables that can provide continuous and wireless monitoring, has developed a flexible and very thin electronic circuit board called eSkin, that is designed to sit comfortably on a person's skin and monitor a range of biometric signals.

It's found in VivaLink's first commercial products: a continuous temperature monitor called Fever Scout that provides medical grade temperature readings; and Vital Scout for monitoring a person's stress and health. Each sends continuous biometric data wirelessly to a smart phone.

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Li said that the lack of medical grade wearables will change over time and that his company is focused on working with experts in the medical community to produce new wearables that can provide medical grade data that is accurate and usable.

Foremski's Take: For the next few years there won't be much medical benefit to wearables until we get those big data studies done. And that means there is a danger that all that data collection could be derailed if wearables are seen as a fashionable fad with no medical value and consumers stop wearing them.

However, wearables won't go away although they will certainly change their look as in the fashion industry. And a technology like eSkin is flexible and thin enough to slip behind whatever is hot that season. All the wearables will be become cheaper and will soon melt into the framework of our daily lives.

The potential impact of wearables on healthcare will be extraordinarily powerful but there's a lot of work still to be done. And we haven't even talked about how to do the hard part: behavior modification which is the ultimate goal of all of this.

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