Their popularity is booming across the world. But devices such as the Apple Watch could become much more than just the latest trendy gadget. Within a few years, experts claim, smartwatches may have revolutionised healthcare.
The ability to monitor your own health has proven a major selling point, contributing to the doubling of global smartwatch sales in 2018. And they are now far more than just pedometers. Watches routinely monitor vital signs such as heart rate and blood pressure, while a top-of-the-range device comes with a built-in electrocardiogram.
But what if that data, as well as information on everything from your diet and sleep patterns to how often you brush your teeth, was uploaded instantaneously to cloud-based servers to be analysed by algorithms? A doctor would no longer have to take your word for it if you told them you were exercising more or had quit smoking. Data from a smartwatch would tell them before you stepped foot inside the clinic.
Smartwatches could even prevent falls and other medical episodes before they happen, believes Asad Khattak, a mobile computing and health informatics expert at Zayed University, who believes the widespread use of the devices for remote patient monitoring is just around the corner.
He has worked on developing systems to identify the warning signs of a fall – such as a change in blood pressure or blood sugar levels – in stroke patients, with a view to warning nurses before they crash to the floor.
“The smartwatch has become a fashion icon, an accessory,” he said. “It’s something everybody is using. We now have the Apple Watch 4, for example, with so many different sensors.
“It has even an ECG in there. We have sensors that can give us information on oxygen levels in the bloodstream. This technology can give us so many advantages.”
Mr Khattak, 37, has worked on developing medical monitoring devices for the past decade and has just published a research paper, alongside academics from Canada and Russia, about building models that could analyse huge amounts of patient data sent from their wrists.
Obvious uses for smartwatches in healthcare include monitoring elderly patients in their own homes, allowing them to remain independent for longer and saving health services money, he said.
But he believes that eventually, everyone will have the option of having their health data automatically monitored and analysed in real time. It would mean young people would grow up with a lifetime of their own health data electronically stored and at their – and their doctors’ – fingertips.
“We are consumers of this data at an individual level,” Dr Khattak said. “But at a community or society level, it requires a change in culture to share this health information. But I believe in three to five years, these services will be a prevailing technology for healthcare services.
“Healthcare professionals have not been exposed much to this technology. It is my personal experience that at first, doctors might not feel comfortable or be interested in it. But when you show them the benefits, they change their mind.
“5G is almost ready to be launched. When it is, the service will be so fast, and so smooth, that the penetration and utilisation of these services will be very high.”
Dr Khattak believes in the technology so much that he has purchased smartwatches for his parents, aged 67 and 59, at home in Pakistan. And he is not alone.
After a slow start, the market for smartwatches is expanding rapidly, and about $20 billion per year will be spent on health trackers and remote patient monitoring devices by 2023, according to Juniper Research, a British business that specialises in analysis of the mobile and digital technology sectors.
Within four years, the company believes the health of five million people will be remotely monitored. In a report published this year, it predicted that the devices will become “must haves” in delivering healthcare.
“For society, this has a lot of potential, it can completely redefine the way we even perceive healthcare and medicine,” said Morgane Kimmich, a research analyst at Juniper.
She said it could mean fewer trips to the doctors, freeing up medical professionals, but that there are limitations to further adoption.
So far, healthcare institutions have shown less enthusiasm than manufacturers and academics about the technology. Insurance companies, however, have taken a keen interest, with some already trialling schemes where customers get cheaper premiums if they agree to share health data, or have made doing so a prerequisite for certain policies.
This has raised fears in some quarters that sharing health data could effectively become a legal requirement, particularly in countries with insurance-based systems.
There are also wider privacy concerns, with some patients likely to be reluctant to share large volumes of health data on a platform that may be vulnerable to hackers.
“The only way people are going to agree to be monitored is for the benefits to outweigh the limitations,” Dr Kimmich said.
“If you really have a health issue and need constant monitoring, you would probably think I will go for a smartwatch and share the data even if there are risks.
“But for someone that is healthy, the benefits may not outweigh the limitations, so it would be a personal decision.
“Even on an institutional level, giving away smartwatches, which are quite vulnerable in terms of software, could present a risk of a massive hospital-scale hack. So there are privacy concerns for the user but also even bigger ones.”
Most countries and health services do not have the necessary regulatory framework needed for a widespread roll-out in place and, while increasingly sophisticated, there remain issues with the devices themselves.
A short battery life – many smartwatches must be charged every night if health analysis functions are switched on – would also be a problem, especially for the elderly.
But like Dr Khattak, Dr Kimmich is convinced that smartwatches will be a prominent feature of healthcare within the next decade. She supports his claim that they could even detect and prevent medical episodes or falls before they happen.
“It’s not as crazy as it sounds,” she said. “If you feed data to an AI algorithm, it will come up with patterns of behaviour.
“These patterns can predict whenever someone is likely to have a seizure, for example. So it’s not that futuristic, it’s pretty much there already.
“If something is detected, the smartwatch could automatically call a carer, a son or daughter, whoever, to tell them to check in.”