Apple’s entrance into the FDA-cleared wearable device market via the new Apple Watch has come with a slew of polarizing opinions from both the technology and healthcare communities. Many are excited by the device due to its enormous potential to provide healthcare data at our fingertips, while others largely focus on the problems it is likely to create with users. Apple is an easy target, though. The real debate revolves around opening up vital sign monitoring to consumers at large and letting them take a more active role in their health. Let’s take a step back and look at broad-based heart rate monitoring without Apple’s branding.
The naysayers are correct — we don’t want unreliable devices falsely alerting consumers about potential arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat) or other cardiac-related conditions, unnecessarily sending them to their physician or the ER. But are the options really so black and white here? Is the only alternative in this argument to not offer more accessible monitoring simply out of the inconvenience of false alarms? It’s not. An industry-wide initiative to arm people with high-quality, accurate devices is the priority to avoid consumers practicing their own form of “Mickey Mouse medicine.” There is a balance that has to be struck between making the technology accessible to consumers without diluting the viability and usefulness of the information to the medical community. Without buy-in from the medical community due to the fear of too many false positives, moving the preventative health devices market forward will be challenging.
In 1996, WebMD launched as a tremendous medical resource to consumers. For the first time, we could easily look up health-related information on the internet with a site that was considered credible. However, it also sent consumers to the doctor’s office overconfident in what they found, or unreasonably frightened. Today, you still read headlines warning consumers about the dangers behind Googling diseases. However, the upside of this innovation that millions still use daily is that consumers are valuing health, wellness and particularly preventative, proactive care ever more. We’ve become a health-obsessed society that has gone so far as to be called The Wellness Syndrome. But it’s not coming in the form we expected: 93% of millennials do not schedule preventive physician visits, according to a survey conducted by ZocDoc. Instead, there is an interest and reliance on online content, blogs, apps and connected health. This is a trend that cannot be ignored by the medical community simply because it isn’t perfect. The traditional healthcare system isn’t perfect either. Today, providers and patients have to work together, using technology as the go-between for validating concerns and initiating action.
Doctors are the key to keeping this new world in check, and technologists need them to play along. The at-home blood pressure cuff is a prime example of the harmonious relationship that can exist and demonstrates the potential that connected health has for other vital signs, such as heart rate, in the future. Years ago, blood pressure cuffs were only available at the doctor’s office, requiring an appointment. Medical device companies owned the prescribed blood pressure cuff space until advancements and progress made cuffs widely available through local drug stores or a connected health device. Recent studies are demonstrating the benefit of this evolution in access, as a preliminary study on home blood pressure monitoring proved to be effective in getting hypertension under control. Participants in the new study had fewer doctor’s visits and lower ER and medication costs after regularly using a home monitor. The study needs to be expanded to a wider population, but it is a glimpse of how opening up broad-based vital sign monitoring and allowing consumers to play an active role in it can impact healthcare.
The argument against Apple’s latest watch is typical of new technologies that break traditional barriers. However, when an industry leader steps onto the playing field the way Apple did, it raises the tide for innovation and changes to consumer behavior. It is certainly important to recognize connected health shortcomings common among trailblazers, and also educate consumers about the real capabilities of devices. But at a macro-level, the Apple Watch and other connected health devices achieving FDA clearance and putting preventive, proactive monitoring into the hands of more everyday people is progress we should all be supporting.
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