Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
Growing up, the only health-related wearable that many people were familiar with was the pediatrician’s cold, metal stethoscope. Nowadays, owning a gadget that records your health information like a Fitbit or smartwatch is becoming as common as having a cellphone.
The Fitbit was one of the first mainstream wearables that started the trend of health tracking and made setting a “target” of 10,000 steps feel both trendy and attainable. Several companies are now manufacturing fitness trackers, and many of these features have also been built into smartwatches. For example, the latest Apple watch can track heart rate, has an ECG monitor, checks unusual heart rhythms, contains a medical ID and other health data, and has the ability to track steps. Many of these devices also track sleep, giving people more awareness of their sleep habits and offering insight into possible ways to improve it.
There are other wearables that are more specifically targeted, such as the Ava bracelet for women. It can track menstrual cycles, pinpoint the window for ovulation, and follow pregnancy. LaRoche-Posay makes a tracker that can be worn as a necklace and can evaluate environmental exposures such as UV rays and pollution. OwletCare makes a sock that can monitor a baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels. Philips’s smart sleep headband can observe and improve your sleep quality by monitoring your sleep levels and playing audio tones to boost “slow-wave sleep.”
Biosensor patches are even more compact and subtle than smart watches. Many of them look like tattoos, thereby earning them the nickname of “intelligent tattoos.” While many are created to monitor different health aspects by absorbing and analyzing the body’s sweat, some have been developed to perform specific tasks. One patch was created to promptly deliver medication when triggered by a patient’s tremors due to Parkinson’s or epilepsy. Because of their competitive pricing and durability, many hope that ultimately they will be used as diagnostic tools or for remote monitoring.
Although they may not be the primary example we think of in the context of wearables, hearing aids might be considered the original wearable and have been getting an upgrade throughout the years. They are now smaller, sleeker, and employ digital technology. All hearing aids process sound, but processing has seen an improvement with digital technology; so much so that Starkey has even built a pair using AI to improve the sound. They can now also use Bluetooth technology and connect with your phone.
As cool as all these new devices are, they also give the medical world something critical: information. A patient can now come to a medical practitioner equipped with significant data obtained from a wearable. Researchers can efficiently analyze patients’ health by giving them a biosensor patch, which will produce more accurate studies. Many medical fields see new opportunities to gain personalized information about their patients in clinical studies. Although this new wealth of information does bring up many privacy concerns, the knowledge and discoveries to be gained will be extremely valuable in revolutionizing healthcare.