Research finds wearables can warn of illness

 In Medical Product Design

Users monitor their own health and fitness every day with wearable devices, collecting a variety of data on their vital signs and activities. Now, it seems that information may be able to accomplish far more than helping exercise buffs set goals for their next jog. A study conducted at the Stanford School of Medicine suggested mobile health products have the capacity to indicate when a person is becoming ill.

The findings represent a promising step forward as researchers continue to explore new ways of using wearables to catch diseases early and encourage patients to adhere to their treatment plans. This ongoing work will direct new product design and development as manufacturers strive to present accurate, actionable indications of users' well-being. The report offers a glimpse into how wearables may be incorporated into routine healthcare.

"Wearables may be incorporated into routine healthcare."

Discovering the possibilities of mobile health products

In the study, published in PLOS Biology, researchers used a variety of biosensors to monitor 60 participants for periods of up to two years. The scientists watched for how certain situations and changes in health led to shifts away from the baseline measurements of factors like heart rate, blood oxygen level and skin temperature. Based on these observations, the study concluded it is possible to determine what changes coincide with particular environmental changes, activities – like flying on a plane – or sicknesses, like the common cold.

The study's senior author, Stanford Chair of Genetics Michael Snyder, was also one of the participants. As KQED Science noted, Snyder was able to detect signs of Lyme disease in himself based on the information from several mobile medical products. While on a vacation to Norway with his family, the geneticist exhibited differences in his oxygen levels and heart rate before eventually coming down with a fever.

"One way to look at this is, these are the equivalent of oral thermometers but you're measuring yourself all the time," Snyder said.

The biosensors were also able to find differences in heart patterns between people who are insulin-sensitive or insulin-resistant. Elevated readings for heart rate and skin temperature, meanwhile, could be a sign of inflammation. Still, making consistent diagnoses on the basis of these kinds of measurements will require further work.

Taking the next steps for wearables in medical diagnosis

The ability to spot infections before patients notice their symptoms could make digital health products an invaluable tool for healthcare professionals. The Stanford study offers a promising start for making improvements in treatment that are both convenient and effective. Much further research lies ahead before this method is a part of everyday clinical practices, but that outcome may become a reality with more trials and innovative medical products.

Researchers were intrigued by the potential for future medical device development and applications. Eric Topol, a genomics professor at the Scripps Research Institute who was uninvolved in the study, commented on the research's implications in a press release from Stanford Medicine.

"The fact that you can pick up infections by monitoring before they happen is very provocative," he said.

As scientists learn more about how certain changes in vital signs are associated with illnesses, consumer health product design can unlock exciting possibilities for diagnosis and treatment. New healthcare strategies, medical standards and wearable devices could all have a huge impact on how physicians and patients work together to achieve better outcomes.


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