PharmExec Blog

The Wearable Technology Revolution? iWatch This Space

In the media world, it’s easy to see when a market is really taking off — someone starts a magazine or a website about it. Well, I just heard about some journalists from one of the UK’s leading gadget magazines who have headed out on their own to launch a wearable computing title. So I thought it might be time to take another look at wearables in the Pharma space.

It’s been about a year since I last wrote about wearable technology on this blog and, unsurprisingly, a lot has happened since then.
My previous post was triggered by the Apple iWatch no-show. They still haven’t released a device and “Apple will not introduce an iWatch or any other wearable device until it offers something that will become as central to everyday experience as the iPod, iPad, iPhone or Mac,” according to Johnny Evans on the Computerworld blog.

Peter Houston

Peter Houston

That game-changing device was imagined last summer by The Next Web co-founder Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten. He saw it as a health and medical tracking device, imagining it monitoring blood pressure, movement, temperature and a host of other parameters. He said he would buy six and I concluded ’Smartwatches need health data to matter’. More on Apple later.

A sector that looked like it might be limited to the gadgets geeks has moved on from smart watches and wristbands to include glasses, jewellery, shoes and sportswear. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to check out the Sensoria Fitness range of smart garments: T-shirts, sports bras and socks made with textile sensors that gather heart rate, force and pressure data.

When it launched a ‘Wearable Technology Storefront’ back in the Spring, Amazon dedicated two of the five categories in the store to health-related devices — Healthcare and Fitness and Wellness.

Writing around the time of the launch, a post on the In-Touch solutions blog said, the Amazon move ‘effectively legitimizes the consumerization of the wearable tech market.’ The authors advised, “As the popularity and accessibility of health-related wearables increases, pharmaceutical companies should consider the opportunities these devices — and the data they produce — hold for improving consumer health and treatment outcomes.”

The vision is that the data captured by wearables will offer physicians insights into patient wellbeing, but we’re not there yet. When you really look at Amazon’s storefront, wearables are more about tracking pets and toddlers or how far you’ve jogged than real health insights.

The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal recently wrote an article, ‘How Wearable Devices Could Get Doctors’ Stamp of Approval… Step 1: actually work.’

Madrigal quotes Young Sohn, chief strategy officer at Samsung, as describing digital health as, “the single greatest opportunity of our generation… to better understand our physical well-being, to give a voice to what is happening in our bodies”. But even he isn’t happy with current performance, “there are battery issues, data exchange issues, and also accuracy issues”, he said.

The good news is that the tech giants are on the case.

Samsung has set out to create an ‘open ecosystem that uses common hardware and common data platforms to simplify the creation of new devices.  It is collaborating with the University of California, San Francisco, to create the Center for Digital Health Innovation, which will work to validate data against rigorous, regulatory-style protocols.

Google has entered an agreement with Novartis to develop “smart” contact lenses that could help diabetics track blood glucose levels. The smart contact lens would measure glucose in tear fluid and send data wirelessly to a mobile device. Novartis believes another possible application would be to use lens technology to help restore the eye’s ability to focus, almost like the autofocus on a camera.

And that brings us back to Apple, still without a device, but definitely not without a healthcare strategy. In a post in the middle of this month In-Touch Solutions’ Wendy Blackburn even asked ‘Is Apple the new Big Pharma?’

Wendy was looking at Apple’s Health app and Health Kit platform, a framework on which third-party device apps can be integrated. Her point is that Apple may not have a device, but it is positioning itself for expansion in the healthcare space. Forbes describes it like this: “Apple is positioning its Health app as the point of aggregation for all the user’s different health data, and Health Kit the development platform to enable that integration.”

Wendy notes that Apple is hiring ‘healthcare bigwigs’ and asks if Pharma has even noticed. She believes that through the delivery of aggregated health data, Apple has ability to change how consumers think about health, to get them to pay attention to all of it in a way that Pharma has never managed to do.

“Perhaps the question isn’t whether Apple might be able to compete with Big Pharma, but whether Big Pharma will be able to step up their game to play with Apple,” she concludes.

iWatch or not, it’s going to be really interesting to watch what Apple does in the healthcare wearables space.

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