At CES, Wearable Tech Blurs Line Between Gadgets and Medical Equipment

At CES, Wearable Tech Blurs Line Between Gadgets and Medical Equipment

LAS VEGAS – THE PURSUIT of health and wellness, on the surface, seems like a strange feature for the Consumer Electronics Show – an annual Las Vegas expo celebrating the latest and greatest in technology like 4K television screens, virtual reality gaming and nearly every futuristic gadget under the sun.

But next-generation health monitoring – and the construction of machines and technology to better diagnose and treat particular maladies – were all the rage at CES 2018. With watches, phones and jewelry now collecting data on wearers and uploading them to cloud-based servers, it’s never been easier for smart devices to keep track of how their owners are functioning and feeling.

“Consumer technology – there’s tremendous opportunity here. And we’re seeing this across the board, with wearables, with virtual reality, with a variety of other things,” Dr. David Rhew, the chief medical officer and head of healthcare and fitness at Samsung Electronics America, said during a CES panel on Tuesday. “They’re using it for treatment options that we never imagined before.”

Rhew told a story of watching a fellow passenger on an airplane lose consciousness. Rhew rushed to his aid, placing his own smartwatch on the man’s arm to determine the regularity of his heartbeat.

Rhew acknowledged such an action likely wouldn’t be officially condoned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – which approves medical devices for market and has been working to evolve the regulatory approach to digital health technology – but his point remained that an item once used simply to tell time is now capable of tracking vital signs to a more precise degree than just about anything outside a doctor’s office.

“When you see every sort of technology becoming a health technology, the lines blur,” Eri Gentry, a research manager at the tech-focused Institute for the Future, said Tuesday. “Regulators are going to have a challenging time figuring out where to draw the line between what’s medically relevant and what’s just a smart home device.”

Indeed, wearable manufacturers and vendors eventually may face concerted pushback from the FDA or run afoul of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) standards as the technology progresses. Experts at CES argued it’s going to become increasingly harder to argue a watch or a phone that can track sleep patterns, record heart rates and monitor body temperature is not a health care device that would need to adhere to more stringent regulations.

“The technologies and the capabilities are leaps and bounds ahead of the relevant application at this point,” said Paul Sterling, vice president of emerging products at UnitedHealthcare. “The future is very promising, but let’s start from the point of: ‘Let’s provide an interesting and relevant baseline.'”

Still, Rhew touched on a handful of uses and applications that are available to consumers today via technology already on the market, and discussed a study Samsung recently undertook to see if smartwatches could be used for cardiac rehabilitation in patients that had recently suffered a heart attack.

Rhew said “many folks drop out” ordinarily, because such rehabilitation requires regular check-ins with and monitoring from doctors and specialists. But by using a watch to monitor progress, rather than forcing an individual to make an extra trip to the doctor, researchers saw completion rates rise in the testing group from about 40 percent ordinarily to “around 80 percent.”

“[The cardiologists and clinicians involved in the study] said for every four patients that are being treated that are completing this program, you’re saving one life,” Rhew said. “Today, we oftentimes within the health care system make it difficult for the patient, the consumer, to do the right thing because we’ve asked them to adapt to our model.”

Smartwatches in recent years have been a hot topic at CES, and 2018’s convention was no exception. But other wearables that could impact consumers’ lives in helpful and unique ways made a splash as well. Cosmetics company L’Oréal , for example, unveiled an ultraviolet light sensor smaller than a thumbnail that can help wearers avoid overexposure to the sun’s rays, potentially mitigating instances of skin cancer.

Philips, meanwhile, unveiled SmartSleep headgear that monitors wearers’ sleep patterns and works to boost periods of deep sleep, holding the promise users will wake up more rested and ready to start the day. And California-based Oska Wellness showed off an electromagnetic-field wearable, the Oska Pulse, and an associated app that together are designed to track and alleviate muscle pain.

“With these devices, even though they’re not FDA-certified, we can glean a lot of information,” Rhew said.

Although such wearable-acquired information to this point has seen only limited application by practicing doctors and physicians, experts throughout the week talked up the potential benefits the medical community could see as the technology advances – whether that means cheaper medical costs, more proactive treatment options or extra time in doctors’ schedules to see more patients.

“I still want to have that [doctor-patient] connection. I just want my work to be efficient and productive for me while also being a great experience for the patient,” said Dr. Ian Tong, chief medical officer at telemedicine company Doctor on Demand. “Really, what we’re talking about here is a bit of behavior change. If the devices are enabling that, then that’s helping the patient.”

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