How wearable design can directly affect our health

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Wearable technology to track and monitor our health and exercise is on the rise. How can design make sure it serves us well?

7 min read

Black smartwatch indicating number of calories burned

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Jason hadn't been feeling right for a few weeks. He hadn't thought much of it. That was until he put on his Apple Watch.

"It said that I was in aFib".

Jason shrugged it off, assuming it was a false positive or a bug and went into work. The watch kept telling him he was in aFib (atrial fibrillation), but he didn't take much notice until his coworkers started to comment on how pale he looked.

He headed to the hospital and sure enough, the cardiac team said that he was close to going into cardiac arrest. He was in aFib.

Thankfully Jason survived and in the weeks since, he hadn't been notified by his watch of any other troubling signs.

Similarly, a teenager with a Samsung smartwatch was alerted to the fact their heart was racing at 219 beats per minute (the normal resting rate is between 60 to 100 BPM). His mother took him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (where an additional electrical pathway exists between the upper and lower chambers of his heart). This diagnosis would’ve been unlikely to happen without the wearable alerting the mother.

Photo of arm with smartwatch tracking calories

These cases aren’t one-offs. There are numerous stories about how health wearables have potentially saved lives by persistent monitoring and prediction of dangerous health conditions.

Our health is of the utmost importance to us and by all accounts, it seems as though wearables are about to become an integral part of the way we monitor it. Not only that, but - if designed right - they may also play a key role in predicting health later in our lives.

Tracking Covid-19

The most pressing health issue the world faces right now is the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus spreads fast when two people come into close contact and can have devastating outcomes.

Technology and software are being designed from a number of different companies and organisations to identify and track the spread of Covid-19.

The key development so far is from Apple and Google, who are working together to implement a contact-tracing system which will allow public health authorities to use native APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to develop downloadable contact-tracing applications. These apps will track who you come into close contact with by exchanging anonymous, unique IDs wirelessly to each other's devices. If one person is diagnosed with Covid-19, they can trigger the app to alert all people they have come into contact with, so that they should self-isolate.

Healthcare is a basic human right - and it’s one that should be inclusive to all. This sentiment should extend to the health-tech market, where there is likely to be heavy investment and innovation in the coming years.

In addition, numerous researchers and institutions have launched their own Covid-19 tracking applications (e.g. Covid Symptom Study). These apps allow you to share how you are feeling, whether you have been tested for the virus and what precautions you are taking (for example, if you're wearing a mask or taking a multivitamin supplement).

Software is playing an increasingly vital role in the tracking of this pandemic - and this could be the start of a major shift in personal healthcare, and the way we design for it.

Mock-up of health tracking app on smartphone

Spotting trends in emerging data

The hidden benefit to our health being tracked over long periods of time is that data begins to pile up. Over time, this data can be used to spot trends in ways that were never before possible.

Not only could our personal devices automatically log symptoms for us (such as an elevated heart rate and a high temperature), but they could also begin to form a timeline of events expected for new and existing health conditions.

For example, if a personal device could recognise that you have been coughing a lot recently and there is a known local outbreak of Covid-19 in your area, your device could make an educated assumption that you may be at risk and should contact a health professional. In addition - if devices could anonymously share that there are people in the same area experiencing the similar symptoms, it could help researchers detect hotspots.

In many health issues, early detection can help increase your chance of a successful recovery. If technology and software can even cut a few days off your detection time by analysing the masses of data you produce every second, it's an incredibly valuable investment of time and effort.

Issues designers need to solve

Healthcare is a basic human right - and it’s one that should be inclusive to all. This sentiment should extend to the health-tech market, where there is likely to be heavy investment and innovation in the coming years.

However, while there are many great stories of how a smartwatch has saved someone's life or a new API design might help