Tech Trends 2023: Wearables Get Smarter, Take The Hassles Out Of Healthcare

by Anand Parthasarathy - Jan 2, 2023 01:13 PM +05:30 IST
Tech Trends 2023: Wearables Get Smarter, Take The Hassles Out Of HealthcareWearable smart devices coupled with AI can address a wide gamut of health issues. (Photo Credit: IEEE)
Snapshot
  • Till now smart watches or phone apps helped collect raw data like pulse rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels etc.

    Now thanks to Artificial Intelligence, they help to analyze your health condition and issue alerts.

    Diabetes, heart, dental problems — even mental health can soon be diagnosed remotely.

    What health wearables are available in India? We look at some options.

A smart watch which can keep tabs on your heart rate and blood pressure as you jog or exercise, and tell you if you are over straining? No big deal.

Wearables have been doing this for at least three years. Some of the more health-oriented wrist devices that were available in 2022, also measured oxygen levels and body temperature and a few could generate a basic ECG trace.

Nice to know, but most of us couldn’t do much with the information. Some apps formatted the data so that they could be messaged or ‘whatsapped’ to one’s doctor — or to a clinic as part of a service. Then we depended on an expert to diagnose if we had some condition that required medical attention.

So, what has changed now? Experts suggest that the new factor, the dealbreaker, so to speak, is Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Unlike legacy wearable devices that just ‘gave us the facts’, today’s smart wearables and mobile devices are getting smarter: They not only gather data, but integrate it with other information and harness AI to take analysis to new heights. 

Subject experts in India and abroad, of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, (now known only by its acronym, IEEE) recently came together to identify five areas of health where we will soon see wearables harnessing AI to provide hitherto unrealized levels of diagnose and care for the wearer.

In the process they will reduce the need for physical presence in clinics.

Here are their predictions for 2023:

Heart Health

Fitness trackers are the commonest form of smart wearables, combining watch and calling functions with pulse rate, BP and sometimes oximeter functions.

Now they analyze multiple data points, helping to form a clearer picture of heart health. Heart rate data is kind-of useful — but it can become valuable when combined with other trends — like sleep data. Maybe you are not getting enough sleep and that is why your heart rate is going up. Many wearables track your heart rate during sleep.

“With other data points like Oxygen, respiratory rate and temperature you can do really sophisticated things”, using new AI tools.

Dental Health

Save a visit to the dentist. Click a picture of your teeth (Photo Credit: IEEE)
Save a visit to the dentist. Click a picture of your teeth (Photo Credit: IEEE)

Tooth decay is the commonest health condition, says the World Health Organization. Who doesn’t dread a visit to the dentist! Now there is help at hand that could at least reduce the number of visits to that dentist’s drilling station.

The majority of oral health problems are preventable. Now a new class of apps and tools leverages your smartphone’s camera and machine learning to help identify cavities, tooth decay and receding gums.

Says IEEE Fellow, Karen Panetta: “If I’m in a remote area and I get a toothache, I can send an image and find out what kind of treatment I may need. But also, to help track progress over time, to watch any condition that might be worsening.”

Diabetes

Graphene patches obviate the need of pricks for blood sugar tests (Photo Credit: IEEE)
Graphene patches obviate the need of pricks for blood sugar tests (Photo Credit: IEEE)

Traditionally, diabetes patients need to prick their fingers several times each day to measure glucose levels in blood using home glucometers.

Some devices like the BeatO which is widely available in India, comes as a plug-in to a smartphone. But the days of pricking may soon be a thing of the past.

Diabetes management has been revolutionized by the use of graphene-based patches that measure glucose levels in sweat, and other wearables, that are less intrusive.

Some researchers have begun looking into the use of graphene* tattoos to help. The innovations are meant to address a key challenge in diabetes wearables: making sure devices match the lifestyles of their users.(*Graphene is a modified form of carbon)

Eventually, such patients need to have a normal life. The challenge is to design biocompatible materials that could be embedded in a non-invasive way on the human body, avoiding allergies and other kinds of complications. These days we have some devices — stickers, tattoos and gadgets that can last embedded in the human body for weeks.

Skin Cancer

AI can detect cancer from a picture of skin (Photo Credit: IEEE)
AI can detect cancer from a picture of skin (Photo Credit: IEEE)

Healthcare professionals have been exploring artificial intelligence techniques for cancer detection for at least 15 years. 

Machine learning and deep learning algorithms have successfully been used to screen for several types of cancer.

The next step is here: skin cancer screening on your smartphone!

Suggests IEEE senior member Sambit Bakshi: “A picture or a signal from the skin is well understood by AI and machine learning algorithms to comprehend whether there is cancer or not. People have applied different types of deep learning algorithms and they have (achieved) core accuracies in the order of 90 per cent. This is a good precision to  commercially deploy these types of technologies. The hardware and the AI model are in development phase for this type of skin cancer detection.”

Mental Health

Mental health is a global issue — but can a smart wearable or a  smartphone help? (Photo Credit: Compiled from IEEE resources)
Mental health is a global issue — but can a smart wearable or a smartphone help? (Photo Credit: Compiled from IEEE resources)

A sobering  piece of statistics from the World Economic Forum: One in four persons, worldwide has a mental health issue.

For the roughly 450 million people worldwide who suffer from serious mental illness, a new sensing technology promises to offer some relief.

Wearables and smartphones may soon be able to help people who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, and other disorders by monitoring their activity, physical symptoms, and social interactions for early warning signs of trouble.

“Serious mental illnesses often don’t have life-long cures; however, appropriate intervention and management can ensure long-term patient well-being. Specifically, identifying early-warning signs in patients can result in timely clinical interventions and  prevent relapse onset and hospitalization”, suggested Saeed Abdullah and Tanzeem Choudhury in their paper, 'Sensing Technologies for Monitoring Serious Mental Illnesses.' in IEEE Multimedia Magazine, a few years ago.

Most major mental health conditions have no cure; at best they may be managed. But since the paper was published in 2018, wearables and smartphones have evolved to turn their prediction into reality.

Currently, they contain a number of sensors that can help examine and monitor symptoms. Location and GPS functions, for example, can be used to measure variables such as how far a person has travelled in a day, how far away from home they are or whether they’ve visited unpredictable locations.

In some cases, travel to unpredictable locations may correlate to symptoms of schizophrenia, while a sedentary lifestyle may be associated with depression.

Voice data can also be an indicator for mental distress. Heart rate variability, eye movement and electrodermal activity — changes in the skin caused by sweating — can also reveal a person’s mental state.

“Stressful periods vary throughout the day, and depending on the environment, the patient can experience sharp but acute stress periods. Data like this can be recorded by wearables and smart devices, which can then provide insights for the therapist”, suggests IEEE senior member,  Ramalatha Marimuthu.

Fuller discussion of the five smart health wearable use cases can be found in this IEEE resource.

Smart Wearables Scene In India

Some Smart Health wearables available in India. (Photo compiled from company handouts)
Some Smart Health wearables available in India. (Photo compiled from company handouts)

Were the technology directions suggested above to become reality, the need for a sturdy wearable with basic health monitoring functions becomes a prerequisite.

What is the current availability in India?

Fitbit is an international brand, widely used by Indians. In recent months, the company has introduced the Fitbit Sense 2 its most advanced health-focused smartwatch with more than six days of battery life. 

You can track your heart health with sensors that can detect signs of atrial fibrillation through an ECG app and PPG algorithm (both FDA cleared, and CE marked), heart rate variability, skin temperature and more.  

PPG stands for Photoplethysmography, a promising technique to detect heart rate using non-invasive, wrist-wearable sensors that sense the amount of light reflected by the skin and relate it to the blood flow beneath.  

The Fitbit device also includes a new Body Response sensor, which measures CEDA — Continuous ElectroDermal Activity — for all-day stress management. Sense 2 is available for Rs 24,999.

GOQii is a respected Made-in-India brand of health wearables since 2014. Its latest product Smart Vital 2.0, is a HD display smart watch which comes with ECG, blood pressure and body temperature measurement, SpO2 Oximeter and heart rate tracker.

It can record a single lead ECG off the user's wrist and will make diagnosis reports readily available to the users. The ECG feature also shows promise in Atrial Fibrillation (A-Fib) detection and management. It costs Rs 7,999.

The world’s first medical grade continuous monitoring device in the form of a watch has been developed and made in Israel by CardiacSense. It is marketed in India, by patient monitoring solution provider Xplore Lifestyle.

It can detect fatal Arrhythmia like AFib, and notify doctors and family members of patients instantly. It can also be used for patients suffering from chronic conditions such as BP (hypertension), Chronic Heart Failure (CHF), and other cardiac conditions.

The watch also has the capability to measure breath-by-breath respiratory rate and can track conditions such as COPD and sleep apnea — The watch being able to read respiratory rate, is claimed to be the world’s first.

The CardiacSense watch is capable of differentiating between a normal heart rhythm from an abnormal/irregular heart rhythm (Arrhythmia), especially Atrial Fibrillation. It is priced at Rs 1 lakh.

This is only a small selection of the wearable tools to measure a broad spectrum of health parameters that are available  in India — and the price band is also broad, from less than Rs 10,000 to Rs 1 lakh. 

The list grows by the day. Which one is appropriate for any of us depends on our chronic state of health — and what technology will offer by way of AI-driven diagnosis in the months to come.

Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.

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