It is no secret that the global market for wearable medical devices is booming. According to a range of studies it is expected to register a double-digit compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over the next five years, reaching USD 7.8 billion by 2021.
I recently spent time at Medica in Dusseldorf with a view to identify technology trends in the wearable medical devices sector. With increasing health awareness and healthcare expenditure, aging populations, rising lifestyle diseases and chronic illness, it is no wonder that the demand for home based medical solutions is on the rise. Given Invetech’s role in the diagnostics, healthcare and consumer markets, what better place to catch-up on some of the latest technologies and trends that may well shape our future selves?
Wearable medical devices can be defined as devices which are attached to the human body, monitoring a range of vital signs and/or providing specific treatments. In some cases, these devices send information directly to caregivers allowing remote patient monitoring and potentially early disease detection.
One of the benefits of attending Medica that you are able to quickly assess market trends at a grassroots level by looking at the way the companies present their offerings and talk about the future. And the first thing that struck me was the extent of the home healthcare phenomenon. Browsing through the myriad company booths at the huge Messe Düsseldorf, you get the impression that the whole medical industry is about to leave its hospital environment and move into our homes. This was particularly noticeable amongst the smaller companies and start-ups.
Among a plethora of more or less generic health tracking devices, several companies stand out with exciting innovations in a number of key areas:
Monitoring capability and data quality
The most obvious innovation area is the extension of monitoring capabilities to include biometrics that were previously only available through bulky stationary devices. Whereas most wearable activity trackers only measure heart rate and motion, the trend is moving toward devices that also monitor blood oxygenation, respiratory rate, ECG, blood pressure, skin temperature and blood glucose, all combined into small and sleek packages.
Biovotion is a good example of this type of evolution. This startup from Switzerland has developed a health monitoring armband not much bigger than a smart watch, capable of measuring heart rate, motion, blood oxygenation and skin temperature. The system allows patients and providers to be connected throughout the continuum of care. The design is clean and modern, ensuring seamless integration with the user’s lifestyle through features like wireless charging. Biovotion is already planning a next generation product with an even longer list of features including respiratory rate and blood glucose monitoring.
When designing lightweight wearable devices in the past, there was always a trade-off between portability and data accuracy. When you make things small and non-intrusive you can often trade out quality of data. This is starting to change. An interesting example of a company that has been able to combine high accuracy with a wearable format was Canadian company Cloud DX. Their Vitaliti system, currently at beta-prototype maturity, is claimed to be the most advanced wearable ever designed, has been selected as one of the seven finalists in the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition. This device is worn around the neck and is capable of diagnosing 15 separate diseases with high accuracy. Quite impressive for a device that you can hide under the shirt collar. Not to mention that it is also logging all its data to the cloud ensuring remote monitoring and early disease detection.
Targeted pain relief
Pain relief is an area that lends itself naturally to wearables. The possibility of applying the relief to the very area of the body that is in pain is both appealing and effective. At Medica this year I saw an impressive number of TENS and light-based applications that are harnessing the promise of portability and convenience. TENS typically requires the user to be anchored down by a small machine that delivers electrical currents to the nerves for the purpose of relieving pain. But as wearable electronics have evolved, so have efforts to incorporate the technology into devices that can be worn on the body. The migraine-preventing headband by Belgian company Cefaly attracted considerable attention and its booth was full of observers keen to give it a go.
Smart patches, tiny adhesive devices worn on the skin, seem to be the next big thing in wearable devices. They are ideal because they can be hidden under clothing, do not interfere with movement and therefore can potentially record more accurate data. Rootilabs, a US-Taiwanese company presented a range of patch-like wearables that monitor a range of indications from sleep and heart activity to humidity, UV rays and temperature.
Other than monitoring vital signs, smart patches can also provide functions such as transdermal drug delivery and electronic stimulation. Feeligreen, a company based out of France, has created an anti-aging medical device for dermo-cosmetics. Feeligreen’s dermoPatch looks and feels like regular anti-aging adhesive patches. However, they differ in their infusion of technology to apply a micro-current across the skin barrier. This increases the skin’s ability to improve the restoration of molecules.
One of the consequences of this type of size reduction is the need for higher energy efficiency and flexible battery solutions. Enfucell is a good example of a company that is developing ultrathin and flexible batteries for these purposes. At Medica they presented their SoftBattery range along with examples from the types of applications where it is being implemented including cosmetic patches, multisensory skin patches and transdermal drug delivery.
Clinical diagnostics at home
Another area of future innovation is the potential of clinical diagnostics in the comfort of our homes. The Fitbits and Jawbones of the world measure users’ steps and heart rate, but they don’t cross-over into the deep diagnostics of biomarkers. For now, those who want to screen for a disease or measure a medical condition with clinical accuracy still need to go to the doctor. Imagine if you could get the answers you need from a simple finger prick, whilst sitting on your couch. Some companies are working on making this a reality including DNA Medical Institute (DMI). They are developing a portable handheld device that can diagnose hundreds of diseases using a single drop of blood with a claimed “gold-standard” accuracy. Known as rHEALTH, the technology was developed over the course of seven years with grants from NASA among others. DMI is another contender for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition.
The influence of consumer electronics
Whilst some of the technology on display at Medica was groundbreaking, it is the integration of this technology into sophisticated, highly intuitive consumer products that will make or break its success. My observations in this area revealed a bit of a mixed bag. Most companies understand the importance and execute well, others less so. Given that this is a young market with a flood of new entrants, my guess is that there will be a severe selection process driven by consumer-electronics-savvy users that expect a new standard of “product behavior” from medical devices.
Overall, we are seeing considerable movement in this burgeoning market with an impressive number of companies trying to get a foothold. A minority of them is pushing the boundaries in terms of the devices’ monitoring capabilities and their lifestyle integration. It’s the people working for these companies that will help realize the promise of a decentralized and seamless healthcare experience.
Magnus Ahlstrom is a program manager with Invetech, and unique in that he is based in Sweden. With qualifications in marketing and industrial design, Magnus is highly valued by our clients particularly in healthcare and consumer markets.