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Wearable devices should engage consumers more

07 Apr 2015  | Scott Nelson

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Smartphones show to be effective in engaging individuals in the therapy they provide. On this matter, doctors agree with technology companies that wearable devices are useful for individuals requiring treatment. But per a recent journal article, doctors believe that something is still lacking for wearable devices to be completely effective.

It is counterintuitive that medical practitioners might understand wearable technology better than the tech community launching the myriad devices at CES 2015. However, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that the pursuit of the healthier self falls short of the health-related behaviours necessary to improve one's health.

The authors—all doctors—are correct that both wearables and the consumer technology companies are falling short—for now. Behaviour change is the key to wellness and wearable devices today focus more on measuring the body than therapies that can change it for the better.

The article identifies four gaps that wearables and the tech companies have to bridge to deliver on the promise of improving healthcare—motivation, engagement, accuracy and usability.

The authors are correct that wearables buyers today are motivated early adopters. However, the analysis that current wearables won't be effective in healthcare is misplaced. When wearables are integrated with therapy, people in need of therapy will buy both the devices and the therapy.

As for engagement, the authors state that "more than half of individuals who purchased a wearable device "stop using it and, of these, one-third did so before six months," pointing to an often-cited study of early users. Smartphones are one of the most promising solutions to engagement because they set the standard for engagement. Behaviour medication purveyors are leveraging smartphone technology for engagement in the therapy they provide. On this matter, the authors agree with consumer technology companies.

The medical establishment continues to cite both accuracy and clinical relevance, i.e., validation, as reasons consumer wearable devices will never assist in healthcare. The authors note these devices can have an impact without clinical device accuracy or validation because they provide patient behaviour feedback.

Chronic disease treatment is more about reliability of the sensor than the accuracy. For example, the number of steps is not as important to the individual trying to be more active as is the average increase over time. The real key to addressing this gap is to integrate the wearable device with the behaviour modification therapy.

Ease of use is the goal of every designer and a core competency of successful consumer technology companies. One could argue that usability is the same as engagement because hard-to-use products are often only used once. However, usability is necessary as it also helps in behaviour change and wearables.

However, the authors confuse usability with efficacy in discussing this gap. They cite a variety of approaches and they are correct that behaviour modification is not something with a single recipe. They also suggest that chronic illness support groups would be more effective than devices in creating a healthier self. Both of these suggestions are valid and already in practice by early leaders in the field.

While the gap discussion is hit-and-miss, the conclusion of the paper is concise and precise:

  • Although wearable devices have the potential to facilitate health behaviour change, this change might not be driven by these devices alone. Instead, the successful use and potential health benefits related to these devices depend more on the design of the engagement strategies than on the features of their technology.

While they are correct that tech companies producing wearables are still enamoured with the hardware, others are ahead and engage in the deployment of behaviour modification science. The authors' criticism is correct and consumer technology companies know it. This too will change.

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