Can you live a healthier life thanks to wearable tech?

 It’s HealthTech Week, so we're exploring the role that wearables could have on our health and wellbeing

Here in New Zealand, it’s HealthTech Week, which means that companies, entrepreneurs, health providers, researchers, government officials, and investors are coming together to discuss the challenges facing the MedTech sector, and to highlight the many opportunities for growth. And there’s a similar initiative in Europe this week too. Started by member organisation MedTech Europe, #MedTechWeek (as it’s known on Twitter) aims to raise awareness about the value of medical technologies to the healthcare industry and to wider, modern society. So, it will come as no surprise that today on the blog, we’ll be focusing on Theme #1: Live Healthier. *

New Zealanders are facing numerous challenges when it comes to health and wellbeing. Obesity, mental health, raising healthy children, ageing populations, cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, and rehabilitation, to name a few. Improving health outcomes is an opportunity for all of us, and it is a central theme in this year’s C-Prize. But what can wearables really do? And will we ever adopt them fully? Here are a few thoughts to get us started…

 "There are so many different sorts of wearables that we can incorporate into our own lives, but which wearable might be most useful? That would really depend on the needs of the individual. I think in the future, wearables will help augment our decision making about how we lead our lives and provide a better insight into our surroundings."

-- Dr Diana Siew, Associate Director of the MedTech CoRE, and C-Prize JUDGE


"Consumers want to understand their health better, so health tech is riding a favourable wave. But, the question will always be, is this a nice-to-have accessory, or does it influence my decisions? That’s ultimately what wearable health technology must do to be truly transformative.

-- Nick Astwick, Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Cross Health Society


"Preventable chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease are a threat to New Zealanders quality of life. Wearable technology can help people monitor their health status and make lifestyle choices that reduce the risk of developing these diseases, and improve their quality of life. For example, using wearable devices to assist with weight management, physical fitness, relaxation or stress management."

-- Dr Fleur Francois, Director of the Measurement Standards Laboratory

There’s a growing market for health-related wearables, and we hope that, through the C-Prize, it will grow even faster. But with numerous regulations and standards to consider, the barrier to entry can seem unsurmountable. But it can be done, as these two NZ-based companies show:

Myovolt first made headlines back in 2012 when they worked with Adidas and Team GB’s cyclists to develop ‘hot pants’ that helped elite sportspeople warm-up before a race. But their latest technology is targeted at a wider audience. Their soft, wearable module can be strapped to the body in a similar way to a sports brace. When activated, it vibrates, increasing blood flow in specific muscle groups. As well as sports fans, the modules are being used by physiotherapists as a therapy tool.

Another New Zealand success story is StretchSense – they develop soft, stretchy sensors that can be stitched into clothing to measure forces associates with body movement, and they’re attracting the attention of athletes and coaches. We are delighted to have Ben O’Brien, CEO of StretchSense on the judging panel for this year, and he has an ambitious vision for the future of wearables. Speaking to Stuff back in March, he said "The future for wearables is making it so the technology is hidden from the user, that's what we call 'disappearables' and that addresses concepts of comfort, social acceptability and usability - not having to pull things out and charge them."

Looking further afield, the market is booming too. Just a few weeks ago, photos emerged of Apple CEO Tim Cook wearing a glucose monitor around the campus. This followed on from news of the company hiring a team of biomedical engineers to develop sensors that can continuously monitor blood sugar levels without piercing the skin.

Diabetics are usually required to manually take samples of blood from their fingertips several times a day. Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) sensors do exist, but they rely on a small needle that stays under the skin for several days at a time. Apple hope to do away with the needle entirely, and monitor blood content using light or an electrical current, via specialised rings, watches or pendants. This has been described as “the holy grail” for people living with diabetes, but it is an ambitious goal. Others have tried similar ideas and failed, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Japanese telecoms company, NTT, partnered with materials giant, Toray Group, to register a patent for ‘Hitoe’, a conductive fabric that can be used for around-the-clock electrocardiogram and electromyogram measurement. IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan has been wearing a Hitoe shirt under his race suit for this season, with lots of others interesting in trying it too.

A US-based start-up called O2O2 recently released a plastic mask for protection from fine dust. The company founders hail from NZ, but were motivated to design the product after living in London and New York. The mask is partially transparent, so that the user’s face can be seen, and it uses fans and filters to purify the air. It also has in-built air sensors, which the company hopes to use to form a living database of urban air quality.

In the UK, researchers at Swansea University will soon begin trialling ‘smart bandages’ that monitor the wound condition, and send that information back to the doctors involved in treating it. It will communicate via 5G mobile networks, and sync to your phone, to gather additional information, such as your activity levels.

Ybrain, a Korean start-up are developing a headband that they say treats migraines by delivering electricity to the brain’s frontal lobe. Currently on trial in hospitals, it also can also track activity levels and sleep patterns. And finally, a new, compact biosensor from engineers at Rutgers University could be embedded in a wearable to analyse sweat for the presence of biomarkers linked to certain diseases.

There’s no doubt that the future of health wearables is exciting. The only thing left to ask is, will you have a role to play in it? Entries for this year’s competition close on 2nd July – apply now!

* To read more about the current state-of-the-art in Theme #2, Work Safer, visit our recent blog. Theme #3, Play Smarter, will be covered next week.