The event horizon is upon us – the moment when man and machine become one. It was imagined in science fiction, decried in traditionalist media, and it has now emerged into tangible reality. The impending release of the Apple Watch next month is the most visible symbol that wearable technology is now an integrated organ of our existence. Regardless of your personal feelings on wearable technology, the fact is, it’s here to stay, and I’d assert that it will become increasingly intrinsic part of our way of life in the coming years. Now more than ever, communicators must consider ways to leverage wearables and the data they’re capable of collecting. The possibilities are thrilling.
This was particularly apparent last week at the Plain Talk in Complex Times 2015, in Arlington, VA. The conference brought together experts in communication technology, usability, plain language, accessibility, design, cultural competence, and digital and social media with a focus on healthcare communications. Punch serves clients in healthcare, so we attended to learn and contribute to the discussion on user experience and plain language. Many of the breakout sessions and panels were noteworthy, but one of the most significant takeaways came as an offhand comment in a keynote address. The speaker mentioned that wearables like the Apple Watch or Samsung Galaxy Gear had the potential to relay biometric data back to healthcare providers and serve as vehicles for providers to communicate with patients. This is huge.
Wearables: A Brief History
As early as 2008, Fitbit released wearable devices that track biometric data for personal use. Early devices weren’t much farther along than motion-sensing pedometers. But in 2013 the company’s Flex, and follow on Force and Charge wristbands took personal biometric data and translated it into a social experience. This was a significant step forward because it made an individual’s vital signs measurable in real time by a third party located literally anywhere with an internet connection. For patients with chronic life-threatening medical conditions, this offers the potential for healthcare providers to monitor heart rate and exercise levels under objective real-world conditions.
Now, the Apple Watch and bevy of Samsung wrist devices take the concept several steps further by enabling two-way communication directly through the data-gathering device. This gives healthcare providers a direct, real-time connection to patients concurrently as the patients’ vital signs are monitored.
Potential Impact for Communicators
For an example of the potential impact, consider the challenge of medication adherence. Studies have shown that approximately 3.5 million patients are hospitalized each year in the U.S. because of failure to adhere to treatment regimens. About 50% of prescribed medications are not taken correctly. Nearly 700,000 people have adverse reactions to medication due to misuse. In total, the estimated financial burden of patients not taking medications as prescribed is upwards of $290 billion.** Many organizations (including Punch client APC LLC) have developed novel solutions to improve medication adherence, from education to innovative packaging and in-home care. Consider the potential impact if healthcare providers were able to monitor patient’s vital signs by syncing data from wearables with software designed to detect changes in biometric stats. Providers could send an immediate alert to the patient with medication reminders and instructions. Patients and providers could engage in a two-way dialogue to discuss corrective steps to prevent conditions from worsening, all through text messaging that is initiated based on triggers from the data collected.
To draw this out further, consider a chronic patient who requires in-home care or monitoring but may not have the funds or insurance coverage to afford the service. Equipping the patient with a wearable (and providing training for use) that allows direct communication would provide 24/7 monitoring. Then, linking in with emergency services so that an automatic call to emergency responders is sent if certain triggers are hit, can accelerate the arrival of life-saving treatment in critical situations.
In non-critical scenarios, wearables like these watches allow healthcare providers to send push notifications to educate and instruct patients on healthy behaviors. Certainly, mobile phones offer a similar capability. Providers could simply sent texts to patients’ mobile phones (a great example of this is text4baby). However, what sets wearables apart is that these devices gather vital statistics so that communication can explicitly reference real-time patient biometric data. It’s a more personal connection by an order of magnitude.
Shift Toward Personalization
Traditionally, information and tips on chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease has been written with the disease as the subject. Meaning, a patient with diabetes, for example, is given a brochure about living with the condition diabetes. Wearables result in an extremely personalized form of healthcare communication that is tailored not to the condition, but to the individual patient. Messaging surrounding care can be written to the individual, based on the individual’s personal biometric measurements. It is a revolutionary mind shift in treatment.
I’m not alone in my assertions here. In January, USA Today declared 2015 “The Year of Healthcare for Wearables,” and there are similar recent pieces in Wired and TechCrunch. A recent Forbes article raised the financially stimulating argument that wearables can have a significant impact on risk stratification, empowering health insurance providers to calculate eligibility and cost of coverage for patients based on actual biometric data. In this sense, the Apple Watch can do for health insurance providers what Progressive’s Snapshot driving monitor did for car insurance. The healthier your data, the lower your rate.
Wearables have come of age, and they’re here to stay. As a result, healthcare has the potential to transform from a traditionally condition-focused model to a personal data-based model. Providers have new opportunities to speak directly to patients, in direct response to changes in biometric data. This affords countless opportunities to educate, correct and maintain health – all remotely.
The event horizon may lead to better lives for us all.
AssistMed. (2015). Patient noncompliance statistics. Retrieved from www.assistmed.com/products-patient-adherence-patient-non-compliance-statistics/
Miller, S. (2014). Using feedback informed treatment to improve medication adherence and reduce healthcare costs. Retrieved from www.scottdmiller.com/feedback-informed-treatment-fit/pharmacy-project/
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