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Will wearables of the future detect and predict illnesses?

Posted by Samantha Browning on 30th January 2017

With the Wearable Technology Show 2017 just around the corner, what better time to delve into the wonderful world of the wearable device? The expo, which takes place at the beginning of March, promises to reveal tomorrow’s wearable technology today. But what do we think the future holds for these stylish and intuitive trackers?

Wearables have far exceeded their early days as simple pedometers. Many now come with options making it possible to measure your sleep patterns, check your heart rate and keep track of the amount of sugar in your blood to help wearers stay fit and healthy.

Some of these smart devices can even give you an on-screen motivational pep talk to keep you exercising and eating well. With a clear ‘health-conscious’ target audience, the next logical step in terms of developing wearables is likely to be ones that detect and predict sicknesses, to either prevent you from getting ill in the first place or minimise the damage being poorly could have.

According to new research from the Stanford University of Medicine, sensors in wearables already have the ability to tell when you’re getting sick. The study showed that changes in factors such as heart rate and skin temperature, both of which are currently measured by most wearable devices, can give an indication of illnesses long before other symptoms show up.

Sensors that are already used to track a wearer’s vitals could therefore become an even more clever and more valuable feature of future wearable devices. What an unexpected bonus to keeping tabs on the number of steps you’re taking. Anything from spotting infections, predicting colds and even giving readings on insulin resistance could become a huge advantage to tomorrow’s wearables and to the people who use them.

If such a smartwatch or activity tracker existed, it could allow many to self-diagnose and flag illnesses or diseases earlier and more easily than waiting for a rash, a headache or a fever, for example. As long as these devices were used in addition to, rather than instead of, expert medical diagnostics, they could become genuinely useful, predictive medical tools.

One disadvantage I can foresee, however, is the age-old question of what else these big tech companies would do with this data. Tracking our daily exercise and fitness routines using smartphone apps and wearables is now the norm and sharing this information with our friends and followers is just as typical.

My own social media feed is full of posts from friends uploading their latest MapMyRun route or snapping a proud pic of achieving their 10,000 steps a day. But when it comes to sharing this information with big tech companies, we’re not so comfortable.

Companies like Apple currently use collect the data in the cloud from their wearable devices, which gets analysed by healthcare professionals who can then offer the wearer medical advice via their device. It’s clever, convenient and saves both parties valuable time.

However, like many big tech companies, the data is sold to advertising companies. If wearables were to start giving out medical advice, it’s likely they’d also be used by advertisers as a useful tool to target us with ads for medicine to combat the side effects being ‘diagnosed’. Would you want to be bombarded with annoying ads for paracetamol at the earliest signs of a change in heartbeat?

The technology may still be in its early stages, but I can’t imagine that doctors need to start worrying about the machines taking their jobs quite yet. Personally, I think a Fitbit, which can tell if you’re about to get the flu, could be a hypochondriac’s worst enemy and likely to increase the amount of times doctors currently spend looking at a patient who needs something as simple as bed rest.

However, the case study did cite an example where the device accurately predicted the onset of Lyme Disease and is supposedly able to predict more severe diseases such as diabetes. If such a wearable was developed and that function came as a built-in additional perk, as opposed to a paid-for extra, I can certainly see the advantages of being able to catch it early.

So are we all set to be sporting wearables designed to foretell our future medical issues in the next few years? (Smart) watch this space…

Photo credit: Pexels