Tuesday, Sep 6, 2022

Pioneering Opportunities for Wearable Sportstech Data in Healthcare

Charles AungerManaging Director, Technology, Health2047 - Heal


Sports technology is experiencing a rip-roaring boom.

According to Emergen Research, the global sports technology market is expected to reach $40.22 billion by 2028 and register a double-digit CAGR over the next few years. The sector claims the vanguard in both wearable innovation and advanced data analytics for actionable health applications such as injury prevention and performance enhancement.

Such wonders are immensely attractive to serious athletes, professional sports organizations, and the average weekend warrior — hence the thriving market.

It’s an exciting space, but it is also relatively insignificant compared to the colossal opportunities it enables.

Beyond protecting Steph Curry’s ankles or helping smartwatch owners get a good night’s sleep, the real prize is leveraging wearable sports-tech innovation and the valuable data it produces to transform population health and advance systemic improvement in medical understanding and application.

Continuous Monitoring Data is Healthcare Gold

Like many advancements in our age of digitalization, data is core to modern sports-tech innovation. The explosive development and adoption of wearable devices supply massive streams of continuous health monitoring data used for a plethora of personalized health and wellness-related applications. Those streams of data fuel all the fancy algorithms and AI-powered insight engines that support new sports and health services from companies ranging from Apple and Abbott to XSens and Xiaomi.

Adapting and synthesizing that type of data and its related technologies to transform the larger healthcare ecosystem will unleash previously unimaginable capabilities — and it’s already starting.

Radical Impact

Consider just one example: pharmaceutical development. As outlined in a Harvard Business Review article on “continuomics,” the same technologies consumers now use to increase daily activity or lose weight can be used in “radically new designs for clinical trials — with more targeted interventions, shorter duration, and fewer participants — thus lowering costs, increasing efficiencies, and potentially bringing important new therapies to market faster.”

How radical? In a recent podcast interview on the use of wearable data and continuously measured digital biomarkers, Dr. Art Combs, President of FutureTech Strategies, illustrated with the example of researchers obtaining a statistically significant sample size for a study on cognitive decline in the elderly: “With normal technology, which is using surveys and many mental status exams and physician visits, the study was powered with 2,000 patients, and it required four years.” But with unobtrusive, continuous digital monitoring of activity that correlates with cognitive ability (in this case, walking), “the number of patients was reduced by a factor of 10 — meaning only 200.” And with continuous monitoring of walking activity and computer usage combined, “you need only 26 patients and three months.” 

A Bigger and Better Picture

Beyond clinical trial transformation, Dr. Combs noted that as a physician, exploring this kind of data is already reshaping his understanding of medicine: “I’ve been able to measure things that I previously couldn’t measure and didn’t even know it might be interesting to measure…what I’ve learned through digital medicine is that you cannot have a disease — pick one, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart failure, sleep apnea, I don’t care what you pick — you cannot have that disease and not have the whole rest of your body notice.”

Technologies pioneered for sports applications can paint a more holistic portrait of an individual’s health. Moreover, they can supply a more robust understanding of population health.

A recent multinational JMIR mHealth and uHealth scoping review on “The Impact of Wearable Technologies in Health Research” found:

  • Big data extracted from wearables may potentially transform the understanding of population health dynamics and the ability to forecast health trends
  • Overall, wearable-generated big data sets might decrease biased data because measurements are objectively taken in the natural environment of numerous and diverse individuals

The authors concluded, “We see growing uptake of wearables in health research and a trend to use wearables for large-scale, population-based studies…in diverse health fields including COVID-19 prediction, fertility awareness, geriatrics, atrial fibrillation (AF) detection, evaluation of methods, drug effects, psychological interventions, and patient-reported outcomes.”

Bridging the gap

The confluence of all these new streams of data for wearable sports-tech and traditional healthcare is worth noticing. Notably, new health applications for Apple Watch Series 8 are expected to dominate Apple’s Live Event tomorrow. Fitbit’s Health Solutions business works with 100 health plans, including Humana, UnitedHealthcare, and Blue Cross Blue Shield, and the company claims that “over 2.6M Fitbit users have connected their data to a population health platform.” 

In April this year, the US Food and Drug Administration approved Fitbit’s photoplethysmography (PPG) algorithm to identify user atrial fibrillation (AFib) from heart rhythm readings passively collected throughout the day. The technology is already embedded in Fitbit’s Sense 2 smartwatch, which starts shipping at the end of September. Such innovation demonstrates how increasingly sophisticated health diagnostics are spilling over to consumer availability at a breakneck pace. Spilling into the traditional healthcare system is another story.

While some medically prescribed continuous monitoring technology is fairly common for remote glucose or electrocardiography (ECG) devices — we’re still far from having anything like those Fitbit Sense 2 readings flowing seamlessly into a healthcare provider’s EHR. 

Issues surrounding regulation, patient privacy, medical-grade data quality, and the capacity of healthcare IT infrastructure to accommodate or utilize vast swaths of continuous biometric information remain vexing hurdles, as do debates around potential cost and payment models. And there are massive cybersecurity concerns about what could happen if such data (or control of its streams) were used for nefarious purposes or wound up in the wrong hands. These are formidable challenges.

But formidable challenges present enormous opportunities for solutions that surmount them. It’s not for nothing that Google ponied up $2+ billion to purchase Fitbit or that Apple released a 50+ page report this year “outlining all its health features and partnerships with medical institutions, arguing that such offerings are key to the tech giant’s future,” or that impressive investment is drawn to the field.

The quest to safely integrate the cutting-edge capabilities of the sports-tech world into the broader healthcare sector will revolutionize both.

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