“Measuring More, but to What End?”

September 17, 2015

By: Plinio Morita

As much as 15% of you use some sort of wearable technology and half of North Americans would consider it. That’s impressive, considering that it seems only recent that wearable tech has been around. What’s more, smartphones have become ubiquitous, equipped with an incredible array of sensors that can collect data ranging from step count to precise GPS location.

Wearables will only continue to rise in popularity too, especially if this year’s International Consumer’s Electronic Show (CES) is any indication. Past the point of merely creating the technology, here, a focus on design delivered more attractive products, as Laurenti de’ Medici cleverly describes in the transition from Wearables 1.0 to 2.0.

Despite the potential of wearable tech, a mountain of available data remains completely underused.

Technology companies remain focused on creating new wearables that allow users to measure more and more of their lives without providing insights into the data. This value, of course, lies in the contextualization of this data, beyond general physical activity levels.

More and more, we are seeing how wearable technology can be strongly aligned to enable more advanced healthcare applications, shifting diagnostics based on discrete moments in time, to a continuous dataset that can provide much richer information to people who are trying to manage a chronic illness.

The Toronto Star recently highlighted some work we’ve done in this regard. The story describes how our Medly application is supporting chronic heart failure patients by providing insight into their recovery and treatment using a number of simple devices, including a Fitbit.

Using Medly, physical activity step count data collected can be transmitted to the app, along with blood pressure and weight readings; all collected via Bluetooth technology in the patient’s home. Analytics can alert of a patient deteriorating well before conventional approaches. This allows the patient and providers a greater sense of comfort, that a rushed trip to the emergency department can be avoided.

Wearables can also be used in a hospital environment to provide additional metrics for ethnographic studies. At UHN, we are currently completing a study using Fitbit trackers to quantify the workload of nurses in multiple units around the hospital. The real-time collection of step data provides researchers with evidence of workload patterns, excessive workload, or time spent away from the bedside, all of which can have a significant impact on patient safety. By quantifying workload using affordable wearable devices, such as Fitbits, we can increase our research capacity by identifying ideal times for observation and collect real-time, quantitative data to inform patient safety initiatives.

So, while wearables have great potential, companies are tackling superficial problems and not the hard ones. We need to go beyond step count to contextualize data in order to create real value for consumers.