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Fitbits of the future: What’s next for biometric data in health?

It’s well-known that fitness trackers are useful motivational tools for achieving a healthier lifestyle. And now, wearable tech is breaking into the wider health care market…

Biometrics are now a key facet of everyday life. If you unlock your mobile phone using your fingerprint, for example, then you’re utilising biometric data on that phone — because biometric data is information taken using unique measurements from your body, whether it be your irises, your voice, your pulse or, in this case, your fingerprints.

Possibly the best known use of biometric data today, however, is in fitness trackers such as the Fitbit. These wearable devices, usually worn as a wristband over the pulse, measure biometrics to provide individuals with information about their body and lifestyle, from the number of steps they take in a day and calories burned, to their heart rate and quality of sleep.

As a constant, visual reminder of the wearer’s health status, the fitness tracker is ultimately a motivational tool, providing the information and impetus he or she needs to make key lifestyle changes for long-term results.

The global wearable devices market is expected to nearly double by 2021, although it seems that standard wristbands are now being outstripped in popularity by smart- and hybrid-watches. These offer consumers many more functions than just a fitness tracker, usually by syncing up with the wearer’s smartphone. Depending on the model, functions can include internet access, a calendar, an alarm clock, a digital audio player, mobile apps, and social media, phone call, email and text notifications — as well as a clock, of course!

How can wearables help individuals’ health and wellness?

The term ‘fitness tracker’ is in some ways misleading, because the more advanced wearable devices and apps can give a much more holistic insight into the lifestyle of the wearer. Yes, this includes physical activity, but also aspects of health and wellness such as diet (including approximate calorie intake), hydration, weight/body fat percentage, heart rate, blood pressure and sleep quality. So, fitness trackers are not only designed for fitness fanatics – they’re for anyone looking to monitor and improve their general health.

There are even wearable devices and apps that focus on mental health, from tracking emotions and providing wellbeing advice; to monitoring anxiety levels in individuals on the autistic spectrum; to highlighting poor posture and breathing in order to help the wearer avoid stress.

In addition to the instant benefits that can be reaped from having access to real-time information (ie being able to make immediate tweaks to your daily routine) the biometric data gathered from health and fitness trackers can also be used to create longer-term risk profiles. Apps can use algorithms to compare an individual’s lifestyle data to a wider data pool of medical research, in order to establish his or her risk of hospitalisation or developing medical conditions such as diabetes. The individual can then set a long-term risk-avoidance programme in motion, either based on guidance provided by the app or by a doctor.

This raises the possibility that one day such data could be made directly accessible to health care professionals, in order to help them with early-intervention, diagnosis or treatment. Technology already exists to remind people to keep up with physical therapy exercises and take their medication on time, and a digitally tracked psychiatric pill has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so full medical interconnectivity seems just a small step away.

Indeed, the potential for wearable tech is quite mind-boggling. Just recently a wearable sonar band called Sunu was launched to the market, to help visually impaired people avoid obstacles in their path.

What’s next for biometric data in health care?

The emerging categories of ‘smart’ clothing and earwear are expected to have an increasing impact on the wearables market over the next few years, with experts forecasting a compound annual growth rate of 48.7% and 58.5%, respectively, for 2017 to 2021.

Garments and shoes enhanced with mobile phone connectivity and biometric technology are already available to consumers, and some, developed by such brands as AiQ Smart Clothing, Hexoskin and OMsignal, can monitor the same kinds of health factors as wristbands and smartwatches, but in a far less conspicuous way. This biometric clothing also has the potential to capture more accurate and wide-ranging metrics, as it’s often worn closer to the skin, heart and lungs and can accommodate multiple sensors at different points on the body.

Jewellery is another area of interest, offering a more easily personalised approach to wearable tech than the standard wristband or relatively expensive smartwatch. There’s even talk of the potential for a thin, plastic biometric film that could be placed inside any bracelet or watch strap that an individual already owns.

Home tech gadgets, such as the increasingly popular smart speakers and virtual assistants, also offer opportunities to maximise wearables’ benefits and widen their scope. For instance, body temperature could be maintained when a wearable device communicates with a smart thermostat; lighting could automatically switch on when the wearer wakes up on dark winter mornings, to avoid accidents; or a virtual assistant could call an ambulance if the individual stops breathing.

Meanwhile, apps and services such as Noom and vHealth by Aetna are supporting the collection and interpretation of biometric data, in order to deliver long-term behavioural change for individuals who are harnessing the power of wearables.

The future, therefore, looks bright for health care biometrics, with continuous innovation set to improve the range of devices, features and services; the accuracy of captured data; and, importantly, the health and wellbeing of wearables consumers around the world.

Fitbits are part of the Internet of Things, but what does this mean and how does it fit into a wider health care context?  

At Aetna International, we’re making strides in digital connectivity to empower individuals to take charge of their health and well-being - from remotely accessing a quality health care via our virtual care service, vHealth by Aetna, to delivering personalised prevention strategies and condition management support via our CARE team. For more information on getting the best international health care for you and your family, contact one of our expert sales consultants.

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