When it comes to understanding how wearables are changing healthcare, consumer brands serve as a solid leading indicator. Popularized by brands like Apple Watch, FitBit, and Garmin, the global wearable healthcare market was estimated at $16.2 billion in 2021, and is projected to double in the next five years.
Healthcare wearables in daily life
Although most users rely on healthcare wearables to check texts during spin class or crush their friends’ daily step records, an increasing number of users rely on smartwatches and other medical wearables for life-saving medical information. As the technology evolves, healthcare wearables can now give minute-by-minute EKG readings, monitor blood sugar, check oxygenation levels, and help people use real-time data to manage their health while they go about their regular activities.
Wearables also deliver oversight and peace of mind to caregivers, as when diabetic children wear devices that monitor insulin and food intake and link to mobile apps monitored by their parents. These breakthroughs allow patients of all ages more autonomy while providing reassurance to caregivers that the person is safe.
Healthcare wearables in long-term care settings
Long-term care presents a gap between that at-home monitoring scenario and the tech-saturated acute care space of a hospital or clinic. Historically understaffed, nursing homes and long-term care facilities struggle with high turnover, increasing rates of preventable errors, and unnecessary escalation of avoidable medical events. In addition to the impact on the patient and their loved ones, these realities impact the facility itself through lower reimbursement rates and increased cost of care.
A 2021 American Healthcare Association and the National Center for Assisted Living survey on staffing in these facilities showed that 99% of nursing homes and 96% of assisted-living facilities face a staffing shortage. Harvard University professor David Grabowski says the pandemic only worsened that already critical situation. He notes, “We’ve overlooked and undervalued this workforce for a long time and now we’re at a full-blown crisis…We’re in a crisis on top of a crisis.”
Ensuring the right level of care for high-risk and elderly patients amidst staffing constraints formed a critical use case for transformation. Healthcare wearables emerged as a leading option that would give staff the ability to monitor more patients, get notifications when care is needed, and escalate when necessary.
Overcoming obstacles to adoption
Implementing a program for wearable devices in nursing homes introduced more stringent requirements than consumer wearables, including:
- Privacy protection: Patient medical information, covered under HIPAA, requires more protection than off-the-shelf iOS and Android systems offer.
- Usability concerns: Patients under care in nursing homes and long-term care facilities often lack experience with technology, and/or the dexterity to manage new devices.
- Cost considerations: In addition to the cost of patient wearables and devices allowing nursing staff to monitor and communicate alerts, facilities must also invest in secure data infrastructure and information architecture beyond standard integrations in market-ready smartwatches.
Creating a targeted solution
Realizing that nursing home and long-term care facilities faced unique barriers to implementing wearable devices, BioLink Systems set out to create a solution. Initially, the company devised a device that could be attached to an adult brief to monitor urination levels and body position. However, early issues with the prototype limited production scalability.
Fusion worked with BioLink to architect a cloud-based IoT solution that uses machine learning to exceed the company’s initial vision. Designed with a minimalist aesthetic and user experience to fit the target demographic, the BioLink bracelet and adult brief wearables:
- Meet HIPAA requirements
- Monitor patient fluids
- Track patient vital signs
- Alert nursing staff when patient vitals fall outside their customized range
- Escalate alerts if patients are not attended within an allotted timeframe
Initial testing and rollouts in nursing homes delivered immediate results, including:
- Improved patient care
- Decreased response times
- Fewer avoidable events such as medication errors
- Decreased escalation of care level, including hospitalizations
- Improved oversight
- Increased compliance with state, federal, and agency regulations
- Better experiences for the patient and their loved ones
What’s next for wearable healthcare devices
As facilities gather more data from using these devices, the machine learning algorithm BioLink and Fusion designed will continue to refine unique vital sign ranges for each patient, resulting in more targeted care. Future iterations of the BioLink device will integrate that information with the patient’s electronic medical record, enabling further customization of care.
While each device starts with a baseline for normal with each of these vital signs, the more data that is collected, the better the facility can care for the patient. For example, if a patient’s oxygen level is continuously high, the device eventually creates a new threshold for that patient’s vitals and only sends notifications accordingly.
Especially with the elderly population, there are many people that can’t communicate what they need or when they feel a certain way. There are endless possibilities for being able to provide better care under these circumstances. With options like dehydration sensors, nursing care staff is better able to not only bring water to patients but ensure that they are actually consuming it.
The more variables, the better
Ultimately, the more variables, the better the information — resulting in better care and better outcomes. The correlation and combination of all the data from a patient can detect changes and allow for more timely, preventative care. And the more information included, the better the insights from the algorithm.
With the right information, staff can prevent different medical events by predicting problems and eventually creating better remedies and treatments to avoid costly medical interventions or catastrophic incidents.
As industry leaders and healthcare facilities see the impact of devices like BioLink’s bracelets, we expect to see greater adoption of healthcare wearables to elevate patient care, reduce facility costs, and find operational efficiencies even during times of staffing crises.
With the right technology and innovation, we can change outcomes and save lives — with a wristband.