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Wearable Technology in Healthcare

27 Dec 2016 by Lana Gates

This article originally appeared in Volume 1, Issue 1 of <theScript> Quarterly digital magazine.

Technology promised to make our lives easier. Relying on computers and machines to handle many of our daily responsibilities was supposed to free us to focus on other important tasks. In some areas, technology has made our lives busier and more complicated, but one area that’s living up to its promise is healthcare.

Wearable technology in healthcare is actually leading to better treatments, enhanced quality of life and longer life expectancy. And we’re not just talking about fitness trackers here.

The rise of wearable devices

Believe it or not, wearable technology is not new. It can be traced as far back as the 1600s, to the first abacus necklace. That’s a bit of a stretch on the term “technology,” but it had to start somewhere. Analog wristwatches eventually followed, paving a way for digital wearable technology. Wearable hearing aids entered the market in 1938. And today, wearables are being used not only to augment hearing, but to encourage healthy activity, monitor blood pressure and reduce stress.

Wearable devices may not be able to cure diseases — yet — but they can certainly provide insights and help researchers improve care. And in some cases, they can even stop ailments before they start.

Preventing diseases

For example, Dr. Vahid Sahiholnasab in British Columbia has created wearable technology called EyeForcer to prevent spinal problems that result from slouching while playing video games, a complication known as “Game Boy Disease.” Lens-less glasses connect to an Android app that warns the user if he or she starts to slouch. After five warnings, the game or video in use shuts down.

Similarly, researchers at North Carolina State University are working on a wristband and chest patch that will help prevent asthma attacks. The Health and Environmental Tracker (HET) gauges a patient’s heart rate, activity, breathing rate, oxygen in the blood and any wheezing. Patients breathe into a third component to assess lung function. With this collective information, researchers will be able to create software to warn patients of impending asthma attacks so they can take measures to avert them.

Panic attacks are another area where wearable technology is making a difference. A large coin-size sensor clips onto a patient’s belt to monitor breathing and posture. The sensor communicates with the patient’s smartphone through an app, and the patient has to slow his or her rapid breathing in order to move a bird up and down on the screen to collect flowers.

Improving quality of life

Wearable technology is making huge strides in enriching life for patients with diabetes. A skin patch measures blood glucose levels and sends an alert to the patient’s smartphone when the level is low and the patient needs to eat. An artificial pancreas is another option. It attaches to the outside of the abdomen and automatically administers insulin when needed. Both of these technologies negate diabetics’ obligatory finger pricking to check glucose levels.

Smart contact lenses and shoes and socks are also under development to aid in the treatment of diabetes. In addition to monitoring glucose through a patient’s tears, the contacts could aid declining eyesight, a common malady with diabetes. The shoes and socks would send alerts to the patient’s smartphone when part of the foot isn’t getting enough blood supply — the goal being to minimize amputations as a result of diabetes.

In addition, wearables are giving rise to improved cancer treatments by tracking patients in between chemotherapy sessions. University of Southern California researchers are working on wearable devices that monitor patients’ days spent in bed, lifestyle changes and worsening health. This information can lead to more proactive care, helping patients get the treatment they need when they need it.

These are only a few of the many advances in wearable technology in healthcare, which truly are preventing diseases and leading to better treatments. It will be interesting to see what new technologies are on the horizon.

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