V3 Enterprise Mobility Summit: Walk, limp or get stretchered into many UK hospitals and you are unlikely to see doctors and nurses wearing smart glasses or smartwatches, despite the healthcare sector being stuffed with cutting edge industrial technology.
Wearables, particularly smartwatches and fitness bands, have taken off in the consumer market, but in healthcare their adoption is practically non-existent.
Annette Zimmermann, research director at Gartner, told V3 that this is due to medical-centric wearables being at a very early stage, existing as concepts and undergoing trials to meet stringent regulations for healthcare use.
"It's still early but there's interest definitely," she said. "Regulation is prolonging the process of a product being able to go to market."
Data accuracy angst
The need for data accuracy was cited by Zimmermann as a significant regulation challenge keeping health monitoring wearables in the consumer rather than healthcare market.
"For a wearable to be used as a medical device it needs a different kind of certification. It has to be accurate and consistent in its performance," she said.
"There still a lot of experimentation around what is accurate in terms of measurement," she added, explaining how the data collected by fitness bands and smartwatches is not suitable for use in formal healthcare.
George Jijiashvili, wearables research analyst at CCS Insight, agreed with Zimmermann, adding that the adoption of health-monitoring consumer devices is radically different to the use of wearables in medical institutions.
"There is a very clear cut definition between the wellness wearables and dedicated medical devices. All this mass consumer [data] is merely direction; it can't be used for medical diagnosis," he said.
"When it comes to [regulation] approvals it is much easier to create a wellness device than a medical grade device."
Time of trials
Medical technology specialists have developed wearable technology specifically designed for use in hospitals, despite the regulation hurdles.
Evena Medical created smart glasses (video above) which use multi-spectral lighting to allow wearers to see the vein patterns beneath a patient's skin. The purpose is to help nursing staff better locate suitable veins for the placement of intravenous drips.
However, Jijiashvili and Zimmermann said that these technologies need rigorous trials before they meet the regulations for universal adoption in hospitals.
Jijiashvili cited examples of two California hospitals which have been trialling smart glasses in surgery operations.
He said the smart glasses were used to display readouts of a patient's vital signs within a surgeon's field of view, bypassing the need to look up at nearby monitors.
Smart glasses have also been trialled in the recording and broadcasting of operations from a surgeon's point of view to be used in training medical students.
Other examples include a trial by Intel and the Michael J. Fox Foundation to use smartwatches in conjunction with smartphones to track and collect data and monitor the symptoms of Parkinson's disease patients.
Similar monitoring wearables have also been trialled in NHS hospitals. Wireless sensor-equipped patches were used to collect data on a patient's heart rate, body temperature and breathing, alerting medical staff if any of these fell below pre-set parameters in between routine checks.
Jijiashvili said that these monitoring wearables allow patients to be discharged from hospital earlier as their health can be tracked remotely. The technology also frees up time for nurses to concentrate on other duties.
Even with successful trials, Jijiashvili said the implementation of wearables and new technology is a slow process in healthcare.
"It takes at least three years for a new technology or system to be put in place in a hospital," he explained. "The technology is definitely there, it just a matter of implementing it."
Saverio Romeo, principal analyst at Beecham Research, told V3 he believes the adoption of wearables in healthcare could be accelerated if the sector learns to embrace new technology.
"It's not really about technology, it's about acceptance of digital technology in the healthcare community, and promoting the adoption of these devices," he said.
"In every profession you have the luddites and the innovators but you need the entire community to accept certain practices."
He went on to explain that this is not an easy task in Europe where healthcare is funded with public money, thereby adding an element of caution when it comes to paying for new technology.
"I believe that healthcare needs a strong process of modernisation in European counties and this process can only go through technology including wearable medical devices," he said.
Romeo touted the idea of a ‘connected hospital' as the way to see new technology better integrated into medical institutions.
"It's not just about bringing smart glasses into the hospital. Let's not think about wearables as devices on their own; these are devices connected to other systems," he said.
"This goes into more of an Internet of Things vision of healthcare, so it's more about the idea of a connected hospital. We need a digital healthcare platform."
Digital data, connectivity and technology is being put increasingly under the microscope by the NHS in a bid to drive efficiency and patient care.
Part of this has prompted the NHS to relaunch its controversial Care.data initiative to drive big data use in healthcare.
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