If it is possible to find something, anything, positive out of this awful global pandemic, it appears that an explosion in the use of smart wearable devices and connected mobile apps is enabling us to more closely monitor our own health. The trouble is, given the sedentary nature of the last 18 months, although we may be increasingly using mobile phones, smartwatches and 'activity fitness trackers', we might be risking our precious privacy.
Then there's the Google effect. You know the kind of thing: after an energetic workout by the fireplace, you stub your toe and go online browsing for likely causes. Scaring the living daylights out of yourself when you read it might be gout, could it be diabetes, or osteomyelitis, peripheral, septic arthritis, even a tumour? It's only a stubbed toe. Yes, you guessed correctly – a darkened room, misjudged a corner unit and 'whoaaaa' – a sore one involving yours truly.
GlobalData analytics reports that sales of such gadgets and linked apps are growing at a faster rate than ever before. Wearable tech on the whole is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 19% to £46 billion by 2024, representing a massive 237% increase since just before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Consumer grade wearables such as Apple Watch and Fitbit bands can gather health data shared with doctors. They're commonly used by the wearer to monitor exercise and sleep. Models come with a single lead electrocardiograph that might identify some people at increased risk of atrial fibrillation. All sounds very, er healthy.
However, the British Medical Journal
(BMJ) has reported that wearables pose challenges for data privacy, but so do hospital systems and electronic health records. With consumer grade wearables, it is up to consumers which data they agree to share with others, including companies or their doctor. Herein lies a flaw.
The BMJ points out that research into the use of wearables in hospitals is 'scant' but several projects have been undertaken to recover the situation. One is by NHS Lothian, involving 250 patients, aimed at shortening attendances by predicting deteriorations in emergency patients and intervening earlier, using data gathered from wearables such as temperature, blood oxygen saturation, respiratory and heart rates. So, there's lots of positives.
However, in a 'pros and cons' report into wearables for the BMJ, my fellow freelance journalist Joe Best worries that we're 'drowning in data', with information overload a concern acknowledged not only by staff but also patients. A 2019 study found that patients could be overwhelmed by seeing their vital signs markers in real time.
Other negative factors include false alarms that increase rather than reduce clinicians' workload, with a risk of staff becoming desensitised to frequent automated alerts. Such problems indicate that successful clinical use depends on more than just deploying wearable technology.
'Information flow is crucial: who does the alarm go to, and how are they going to act on it?' asks Matt Wilkes. Wilkes, a former NHS Lothian anaesthetics registrar, is now a COVID-19 fellow in critical care and chief safety officer at Current Health – a company whose remote monitoring wearable tech is used in several NHS trusts including Lothian.
It seems reasonable to presume that wearables will almost certainly figure higher on doctors' agendas in the future as consumer devices become even more popular and manufacturers increasingly add medical-type features. Unfortunately, it is this very integration of wearables with health systems that is causing concern. A recent UK survey on current attitudes towards online personal data use and privacy showed that we are more concerned about our privacy now, compared to a year ago.
More often than not, there is no PIN or password protection with a wearable, no biometric security and no user-authentication required to gain access. So, if it falls into the wrong hands, sensitive information can be accessed with consummate ease. Unfortunately, given the casualised consumer society in which we all co-exist, hardly anyone goes to these lengths to protect themselves.
Furthermore, smart watches and the like collect a lot of information about you, but bear in mind it is stored in the cloud and on a remote server. There's not much you can do to prevent a potential data breach.
Norton Internet Security warn of the 'risks on your wrist', pointing out that wearables act as an extension of a smartphone, giving instant access to apps, email, text messages, web... the lot. Some smart watches do not have a great history when it comes to security: one study by Hewlett Packard found critical security issues, with the most common problem being insufficient user authentication: every smartphone analysed had a user interface lacking a two-factor authentication, or the aptitude to freeze accounts after multiple failed password attempts.
Okay, this study was in 2015 and wearable tech has come a long way in a few years, but such is the rate of technological developments, it is still best to check your data privacy and security that's collected and stored without you really knowing anything about it. All that said, there remains little doubt that wearables can
provide hard-pressed health professionals with important additional patient information.
Meanwhile, a new generation of smart TVs is heading in our direction but without a remote. Don't panic! Alexa-style, the viewer will be able to bark orders at the set, like changing the channel or going mute. Perfect for the couch potato as they check their cholesterol, while perhaps wondering who's monitoring the data on their Fitbit app.
Former Reuters, Sunday Times, The Scotsman and Glasgow Herald business and finance correspondent, Bill Magee is a columnist writing tech-based articles for Daily Business, Institute of Directors, Edinburgh Chamber and occasionally The Times' 'Thunderer'