More wearables shift from fitness to clinical use with new Samsung and AT&T smartwatches

fitness tracker
More consumers are leveraging wearables to address concrete health needs rather than just fitness tracking, according to a recent survey. (DragonImages/Getty)

More wearables are jumping into the health and medical space with a new Samsung Galaxy Watch Active promising a feature the Apple Watch doesn’t yet have: blood pressure monitoring.

Apple’s latest version of its smartwatch, the Apple Watch Series 4, features a built-in electrocardiogram feature and fall detection. Samsung’s newest smartwatch for the consumer market features exercise, sleep, stress and health tracking features as well as an upcoming blood pressure tracking feature.

According to a Samsung release, starting March 15, users can download MY BP Lab, the research app jointly developed with the University of California, San Francisco, directly to the Galaxy Watch Active to monitor blood pressure.

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9to5Mac reported that the phone version of the My BP Lab app that is already available uses an optical sensor (camera) to take measurements, but a traditional blood pressure cuff is still needed to "calibrate" the sensor. The app only tracks changes over time without an initial calibration. 

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“Tech specs for Samsung’s new watch don’t mention any new hardware beyond the heart rate monitor so it’s possible the same limitations will apply,” 9to5Mac reported.

But Samsung's wearable health offerings aren't the only new features on the market.

OneLife Technologies, a mobile medical software, and data collection company teamed up with AT&T to launch the OnePulse smartwatch to be used for remote patient monitoring, what the companies call the first “LTE-M certified medical wearable.”

LTE-M is a low-power wide-area technology built to support IoT devices. That technology makes possible OnePulse’ five-day battery life, always on feature and lightweight design, the companies said.

The companies believe the medical and health wearable can be used as a tool for medical providers to monitor chronically ill and elderly patients who plan to age in place. The smartwatch provides 24/7 monitoring and alerts for things such as medication reminders, fall detection, and data on heart rate, sleep and location.

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Via Bluetooth, the device can connect to other medical devices such as blood pressure cuffs and glucometers. The wearable features an open application programming interface (API) enabling connection to any system, including electronic health records platforms.

The medical and health smartwatch will be available for purchase by healthcare providers next month.

“Connected smartwatches developed with healthcare in mind are a step forward into the future of patient care. The ability to connect caregivers and patients is just one example of how connectivity is transforming healthcare and creating new care models,” said Joe Mosele, vice president, Internet of Things, AT&T.

Demand across healthcare

Hospitals and other healthcare providers are increasingly testing out wearables to monitor patients’ health.

A survey of hospital executives from HIMSS and AT&T found 47% of hospitals are providing wearables to patients with chronic diseases and 47% also are conducting remote monitoring via in-home medical devices and smartphone apps. About a third of hospitals say they provide wearables to post-op patients to track their activity and one-third equip patients with the devices to encourage preventative care.

Forty-three percent of hospitals accept data from patient-owned devices, the survey found.

Insurers like Aetna and Humana are also exploring ways to use wearables as a way to empower patients to monitor their own health. Aetna partnered with Apple to allow its members to purchase an Apple Watch and then earn it back through healthy behavior.

A recent consumer survey from Rock Health on digital health adoption found that wearable adoption rose rapidly last year, from 24% in 2017 to 33% in 2018. The way consumers use wearables is evolving, with more consumers leveraging the devices to address concrete health needs rather than just fitness tracking, according to the survey.

“In 2018 the tides of wearable usage changed dramatically—respondents reported using wearables to manage a diagnosis and using them less to motivate a physically active lifestyle,” Rock Health researchers Sean Day and Megan Zweig said.

While monitoring physical activity remains the top reason for wearable use, only 44% of wearable owners cited physical activity as the top reason for their wearable use, down from 54% in 2017. This 10% decrease is mirrored by a 10% increase in respondents using a wearable to manage a diagnosis, growing from 20% in 2017 to 30% last year.

“Wearables are morphing from their original fitness and wellness label into a tracker that can be clinically meaningful to patients—and perhaps even providers,” the researchers said.

It’s also an issue that has attracted a lot of investment dollars. Since 2011, $3.4 billion has been invested into wearable companies—11% of all digital health venture dollars across that time period, Rock Health reported.

The Rock Health researchers note that getting consumers to keep putting on the smartwatch is an ongoing challenge—39% of wearable users stopped using their device in 2018, up from 27% in 2017.

“We suspect wearable use will become stickier as the shift from fitness to clinical uses continues, as providers get more value from data to monitor patients, and as consumers are incented to sustain use,” the Rock Health researchers said.

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