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How a boom in personal health devices, from Fitbits to iWatches, is changing the face of health care

Jennifer Troxell Woodward, contributing writer//November 22, 2019

How a boom in personal health devices, from Fitbits to iWatches, is changing the face of health care

Jennifer Troxell Woodward, contributing writer//November 22, 2019

The booming wearables market is transforming the health care industry as patients use smartphone apps, the Apple Watch, Fitbits and Garmins to track their heart rate, check for heart arrhythmia, and monitor physical activity, sleep patterns and hydration.

And they’re getting smarter.

“Apple’s newest iWatch can obtain EKGs, a company is coming out with contact lens that measure blood sugar, and Under Armour is going to put sensors in its clothing,” said Dr. Robert Kruklitis, vice chair, Department of Medicine, Clinical Programs and a pulmonologist at Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Network based in Allentown. “We are right at the beginning of patients staying at home (and being remotely monitored). There is a lot of work being done to use data to educate patients to diseases, conditions and to stay healthy.”

Health care officials say wearable devices, sensors and mobile apps have exploded in popularity, and will only get more sophisticated over time.

Kruklitis said a lot has happened in the last 15 years. Today, a patient with an iWatch can go to the doctor and show the physician how they’re doing.

“They will say, ‘Here are what my values are,’” he said.

Wearable devices can only get better from this point on, offering biometric and other data health care providers can obtain, save and analyze to measure health and wellness than ever before.

Sophistication improves

Use of so-called wearbles is rising among all age groups, said Dr. Ron Nutting, director of medical affairs for Tower Health.

“All these devices are becoming more sophisticated and precise,” he said. “They have evolved from simple step-counting to expand into areas like monitoring heart rates and rhythms, tracking the quantity and quality of sleep, intensity of work outs, and other metrics.”

Some wearable devices are now tracking heart rates with very small EKG leads, which improves accuracy and allows measuring heart rhythms as well as rates. This will be helpful for people with heart arrhythmia, he added.

Insurance companies are not paying for these devices yet, but they are affordable enough for patients to purchase. Insurers do, however, cover most devices that might be used for diagnosing a specific heart condition, such as a 24-hour Holter monitor, or Mobile Cardiac Telemetry, which are wearable patches that record heart rhythms for up to 30 days.

“It is a little early to draw any hard conclusions about the role wearable devices might have in preventing or treating a specific disease across a large population or particular group of patients. The research is not conclusive at this point,” Nutting said.

Tower Health did its own Fitbit challenge recently and got 4,200 employees to participate. One employee reported losing 45 pounds and at least 1,400 others continued to track their wellness when the challenge ended.

Nutting said that he believes the next frontier in wearables will include greater accuracy, broader range of body functions that can be tracked, and smaller devices.

Wearable devices in the future will be able to continuously monitor glucose levels to help patients with diabetes or those prone to becoming diabetic, he said.

The devices are getting smaller, too, some the size of a ring, Nutting said.

Used in nursing homes

Residents at one senior living facility in Bethlehem have been wearing lightweight smart bands since March to monitor daily activity and help keep residents healthier.

According to Eran Ofir, CEO and co-founder of New York-based Somatix Inc., the company has software that detects potential threatening conditions, sends alerts and notifications to nursing staff, and monitors hand movements and gestures to gain information about a person’s daily activities.

Somatix, which developed this software in Israel and then won government grants to bring its product to the United States, has partnered with Catholic Senior Housing and Health Care Services Inc. (CSHHCS) in the Lehigh Valley. The program was introduced SafeBeing to senior residents at the Bethlehem campus in March. The smart band determines how much a person walks, eats, sleeps and drinks. SafeBeing can detect if someone falls or wanders away.

Ofir explained that there are several components to SafeBeing, including the smart band, the Mobile App seniors use to monitor their activity, a center at the Bethlehem facility where activity is monitored and a Mobile App for caregivers or family members to remotely watch the activity of residents at the senior living campus.

“We know it works beautifully and it has been providing peace of mind,” Ofir said, indicating that the software will be used in triage centers, hospitals and drug and alcohol centers.

Dr. Charles Herman is the president and chief medical officer at Somatix as well as a medical executive with the Lehigh Valley Health Network. He said the software is also being used at Brookdale drug and alcohol facility in Scotrun, Pa., but the partnership with CSHHCS is the first on a larger scale.

According to Herman, the software measures hard data, helps health care workers determine who is most frail, who needs the most care, and nothing has to be installed in a patient’s room for monitoring. He said the device detects various kinds of falls, which sets it apart from its competitors.

Often, a fall device can only detect when a person falls forward, he said. This device detects different kinds of falls by patients, including if they fall backward or off their wheelchair.

“It allows for improvements in efficiency of care and determines those at higher risk for medical problems,” Herman said. “It is going to help hospitals with their readmission rates and save them $12,000 to $18,000 per patient.”

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