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Where Are the Wearables?

It’s well known by now that wearables sooner than later end up gathering dust at the bottom of drawers. Sustained use of wearables is a problem that the industry now recognizes and several sessions at Partners Healthcare 12th Annual Connected Health Symposium addressed the competing hopes and doubts about the technology. Here are the experts’ takeaways:

The Promise Versus the Reality

High expectations surround the use of wearables, but the data does not support the optimism. Robert Pearl, MD, executive director and CEO of The Permenante Medical Group, referred to the “folly of the wearable device,” saying in his keynote address that the only problem wearable tech solved was the “December” problem – that of finding a relatively inexpensive but cool Christmas gift.

Several panelists agreed that sustained use of these devices remains a problem. Stories of Fitbits remaining unopened or “lost” abound, but that doesn’t mean the devices must go unused. Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, who researches wearables’ utility in non-traditional populations, founded RecycleHealth, which collects and reuses wearables in pilot weight-loss programs.

Value in Education

Gualtieri spoke about the educational value of these devices. Using an activity tracker makes users aware of how much exercise they are really getting, allowing them to make an educated guess about their fitness levels just as calorie information on restaurant menus allows diners to make an informed decision about their order.

Jon Michaeli of MediSafe, a company tackling the $300 billion problem of medication adherence, pointed out that their product is more than simply a pill reminder. Users can make informed decisions about their medications based on their data. Graphed measures such as blood pressure levels illustrate the beneficial impact of medications in what is essentially an intrinsic reward system.

Sherry Pagoto , a clinical psychologist working in health behavior change and cofounder of the UMass Center for mHealth and Social Media, mentioned the impact of online, evidence-based lifestyle intervention programs like Omaha Health and Weight Watchers. Comprehensive programs that include apps, devices, an online presence and coaching are proving themselves to be the most impactful.

Challenges and Hopes for the Future

Wearables’ early adopters have been the “worried well.” But what about adoption among more challenging populations? Initiatives broadening access like RecycleHealth are a step in the right direction, as are programs designed with specific populations in mind, like those for seniors who commonly transition from using paper and pen.

Pagoto cautioned that unachievable expectations and unmet goals can lead to disappointment, impeding adoption. Then there is the matter of an individual’s personal motivation and self-efficacy; devices simply lend additional support.

However, several experts noted reason for optimism if wearables are seen as part of a larger system rather than stand alone devices, as hardware connected to software and through it to a larger community of support and medical providers. The human connection is important, as Tara Montgomery of Consumer Reports pointed out. Though equally important questions about privacy remain. Who is the data shared with? When and who has control over it?

Krina Patel

Krina Patel

    Krina Patel is a writer/illustrator and educator committed to building provider-patient relationships. Dr. Patel’s doctoral research on the body and cognition at Harvard University and her experience adopting and promoting technology in education brings her to her current work in the health and technology sector. Follow her on Twitter, @positivelylearn.

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