PPL Blog: What exactly are wearables, and what (if anything) could they mean for the NHS?

PPL Blog: What exactly are wearables, and what (if anything) could they mean for the NHS?
posted 25 November 2014

By Natasha Porter, Consultant, PPL

As the name might suggest, Wearables is the umbrella term for devices and technologies that can be worn on your body. Many of the Wearables that have reached the market so far have had a health and/or fitness focus, from smartphone apps that track activity levels, to smart watches that track heart rates and even clothing that can monitor epilepsy. They’ve generated a tremendous amount of hype and interest, and have even been heralded by some as a means to revolutionise healthcare.

Although relatively new on the scene, the Wearables market is expected to grow significantly in the coming years, and mainstream technology players such as Apple, Intel and Samsung are keen to capitalise on the commercial opportunity. So far, Apple has established itself as the frontrunner with their recently introduced ‘Healthkit’, which consolidates data from a range of health apps into one dashboard and allows the user to monitor and track metabolic activity, including blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol and calories burned. 

Consumer and recreational Wearables are one thing, but could the rise of Wearables have wider implications for the NHS? Advocates of wearable technologies believe they offer user-friendly platforms to help self-manage long-term conditions and could change the face of chronic disease management. They may also offer exciting diagnostic opportunities: scientists have recently created an app that should be able to detect early signs of Parkinson ’s disease, years before the onset of symptoms. 

The potential applications of Wearables is undoubtedly exciting, but they should be welcomed with caution. Wearable technologies are still, for most parts, considered to be a nice to have rather than a need to have, for those that are digitally literate and who can afford smart phones and gadgets – leaving behind those with less disposable income and lower digital literacy.

Moreover, with demand for Wearables driven by individual consumers, rather than organisations providing health and social care, we run the risk of not optimising its potential, especially for the elderly population that is living with one or more long-term conditions – the cohort with the lowest digital literacy. 

From an NHS perspective, the main barrier to wearable technologies is the associated price tag.  When budgets are squeezed and core services are struggling, can the NHS really afford to embrace Wearables? Within the current market, the answer is more often than not no. Indeed, research suggests that 83% of Trusts currently have no plans in place to use wearable technology in the future.  Yet, those in the NHS with an eye on future strategy will no doubt monitor how the sector (particularly frontrunners in the US) develops and how personal health and fitness apps might evolve into more patient-focused support tools.  The challenge ahead for health and social service providers is to establish the business case for investment in the new technology, integrate this into existing work processes so that it is not merely considered to be a bolt-on to existing services, and – importantly - work with users to embrace the new technology in ways which enables them to manage their own health and wellbeing.