Flexible wearables promising, but face many challenges to health success

Healthcare wearables face a variety of challenges, including the development of an industry that will drive value-added solutions, and privacy, political and treatment issues that could divert attention from innovation, according to Robert Reuss, Ph.D.

Reuss, who served as editor of a paper on the topic published as part of a special Proceedings of the IEEE issue on flexible hybrid electronics this past spring, notes, however, that such advances present "a unique opportunity for achieving a high-performance, multifunctional, self-powered sensing system." Such systems, according to the paper, "will potentially lead to an enhanced understanding of disease onset and progression of disease and its effective management."

In describing the hurdles to FierceMobileHealthcare, Reuss, who served as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager in the Microsystems Technology Office from 2001 to 2006, refers to obstacles that have impeded prior technology innovations.

"The cautionary tale here might be flexible displays" Reuss told FierceMobileHealthcare in an interview. "They have been a desired solution for 10 to 15 years, but the cost and performance penalties have minimized their market penetration. Flexible electronics must offer an advantage to the consumer, not just be different than what is conventionally available."

Research firm Argus Insights recently reported mHealth wearables demand is slowing after a big surge in late 2014. Data indicates that while consumer interest climbed between 2014 and 2015--peaking in January 2015 with a fourfold increase in interest compared to the year prior--consumer interest in wearables for the second half of 2015 is significantly slowing.

Regarding consumer wariness with security and risks in data collection, use and user privacy, Reuss noted that it's the same challenge facing many wireless developments.

"It is a definite issue and one much bigger than just mobile health. To my knowledge the problem is no worse with flexible electronics, nor does it offer any solutions because of its nature," Reuss said. "But, the whole of wireless communications will need to be made secure whether mobile health or driverless autos. Whatever solutions are created should be applicable to wearable health devices."

A recent Tractica white paper noted consumer adoption of wearables will require a focus shift to user interface design, analytics capabilities and a clearer value proposition. Reuss says the evolution of flexible wearables will need support from users, device makers, government agencies and the scientific community.

"All of the above are needed for success," he said. "The conventional electronics industry found success based on efforts from a divergent community. I don't expect this to be any different."

For more information:
- read the research paper (.pdf)