Healthcare systems around the world are under mounting pressure. Public expectations are growing; changing demographics are leading to increased demand for services; at the same time as average lifespan is increasing, unhealthy lifestyles are causing an escalation in the prevalence of chronic conditions.
A recent report on UK healthcare from PA Consulting analyses the situation – and concludes that ultra-low-power wearable technology could be a vital component in solving many of these problems, not just in the UK, but around the globe.
Looking at the English National Health service, the report estimates that the use of wearable technology could save around £1.5bn (US$2.3bn) each year by reducing the demands on family doctors and other primary care providers. The knock-on benefits could be even greater: around £5bn (US$7.8bn) in quality of care, reduced hospital admissions and bed stays. In percentage terms the savings might add up to 7% of England’s primary care costs and 10% of acute care costs.
These are big numbers, but it’s worth bearing in mind that they only cover England. Looking at the 28 EU member states as a whole, public expenditure on health care and long-term care equaled 8.5% of total GDP in 2013 and could reach 10% by 2060, purely because of the ageing population.
“In our view,” the PA report says, “wearable technology should be placed right at the front of the patient pathway, where it can be used to support a much- neglected prevention agenda.”
But haven’t we heard this before? Surely these same promises have been bandied about for tele-health and similar technologies for more than a decade?
However, the report points out that to-date, tele-health initiatives have usually failed because they “lack the ‘something special’ that consumers have come to expect from their personal devices”. The report’s authors expect the advent of wearable technology, enabled by miniaturized ultra-low-power electronics, to change all that, not least because the consumer electronics industry has already created a demand around them – eight million people in the UK already use some kind of wearable product, and many of these are healthcare related.
PA divides the benefits of wearables for healthcare providers into three broad categories. The first of these is acting as a “digital coach”; helping people to improve their diet, reduce their alcohol and substance misuse and take their medicines correctly. This last point is not to be taken lightly – the report says that a staggering 3% of all health spending (and this is a global figure) is caused by patients’ poor compliance with drug delivery regimes.
The second category of use for wearables, according to the report, is in continuous yet unobtrusive monitoring of patient data. This has traditionally carried connotations of “Big Brother is watching you”; but increasingly people are becoming more accepting of the principle, as they voluntarily embrace products offered in the consumer products space, ranging from heart rate and sleep monitors to pedometers.
And combining unobtrusive sensors with the connectivity enabled by the Internet of Things not only facilitates on-going care scenarios such as keeping dementia sufferers safe, it also allows clinicians to collect long-term data and make much better informed decisions based on that data.
Finally, PA believes that wearables could help drive efficiencies in healthcare delivery, in much the same way as IT can be used in business change programs in the commercial world. Here the potential ranges from simply helping patients to find their way around healthcare facilities, to equipping clinicians with heads-up displays to enable them to communicate with hearing-impaired patients who use sign language. There is also the potential to help remove some of the skills barriers involved in diagnosis and treatment – for instance by allowing complex tests to be administered by practitioners with lower skill levels.
The potential for the use of technology in healthcare has been clear for some time – the advent of wearable appliances and ubiquitous connectivity could provide just the impetus needed to finally make such initiatives a reality.