With the soaring increase of Fitbits and the ever-expanding health features available on the monumentally successful Apple Watch series, health wearables have enjoyed an explosion of popularity over the last few years. By the end of 2019, the market will be worth more than $9.15bn and is projected to almost double in the next three years, reaching an astonishing $18bn by 2021, according to Statista.
But beyond their status as the latest "in" technology, health wearables are disrupting the traditional process of caregiving by allowing people to take control of their health data and, more significantly, their health. And this is radically disrupting the relationship between health providers and patients.
We talk with Chris Valentine, spokesperson and producer of SXSW Pitch, a startup showcase, which, now in its 11th year, has never experienced such an influx of healthcare startups, about how wearables will shift this relationship, for good.
"Wearables are allowing people to have better understanding of their own data," begins Valentine. "They can then work with a doctor to be able to help plan their health and wellbeing.
"It's all a shift. Traditionally when you think about health, the doctor is always the one with access to data and knowledge about how patients should look after themselves. With wearables, and other technologies springing up in the field, we as a "health consumer" have a greater say over our own health."
The growth of the IoT and wearables has also empowered people to understand their own health and begin to treat themselves at home.
"Today, I could realize that there's something wrong with my ear and I'd immediately be able to do some analysis on my phone to understand that it's the beginnings of a cold," explains Valentine. "That way I can get some medicine and turn a five-day cold into a two-day one – the difference that makes to lives and productivity is incredible. With wearables, we are motivated to do our own data analysis.
"It's all about allowing the patient to have more control over the process, as opposed to the doctor being the one with all the power and information," he adds. "That imbalance has not been good for anyone."
The growth of wearables has been particularly life-changing for chronic illness sufferers where the ability to track their health day-to-day and share data with health providers has been revolutionary. For example, last year the legacy tech giant IBM partnered with medical developer Medtronic to develop an AI-enabled personal diabetes app for monitoring blood sugar levels in diabetes patients in an effort to reduce medical complications caused by the disease. This is just one example of wearables being used to empower patients and relieve the burden on healthcare providers.
Of course, the rise of health wearables, in particular the health-tracking features in the vastly popular Apple Watch series, has caused several critics to voice concerns over the trend turning people into hypochondriacs en masse, seeking unnecessary treatment.
But there will always be people who will misuse technology and people who will not be interested in it at all, Valentine tells us. Where wearables come into their own is in their ability to make everything so much more efficient and improve health outcomes massively.
"At the moment, you walk into the GP and they have to proactively assess what the problem is from the information they are given in a 15-minute appointment," says Valentine. "With wearables involved in the process, you can walk into an appointment and the doctor immediately has access to the data you've been sharing with them and they are then able to offer more in-depth treatment of your specific situation. This will allow them to give patients more detailed advice on adjusting behavior patterns."
This means that doctors and patients will be working together as a team to better health and quality of life.
"They are then part of the decision-making process when in the past they weren't. It becomes a more collaborative process along the way."
With this reframing of the relationship as a more balanced union between the patient and health provider there will need to be some retraining and likely positions will become obsolete, Valentine notes. But the whole process of treating a patient will become a lot more effective.
"The patient changes but the doctor must change as well," he concludes.