Wearables for Chronic Diseases: Are They Effective?

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What is a Chronic Disease? Umm, no, not that annoying colleague at work. It’s something a teensy bit more serious than that. Pardon the jargon that follows for the next couple of sentences: “A chronic disease is one that lasts 3 months or longer. In general, chronic diseases cannot currently be prevented by vaccine or cured by medication, nor do they resolve by themselves. Not all chronic diseases are fatal, and not all fatal conditions are chronic”. Apart from the Big Three in common knowledge (Hypertension, Diabetes, and Asthma), there are many chronic illnesses and cancers that affect the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain.

In India, Chronic Diseases account for 53% of all deaths. That is a staggering number to consider and be aware of when you realise that this means many individuals go through prolonged suffering and loss of productive life before death. So, how do chronic diseases impact our citizens? How do we go about treating them? And do wearables have a profound or even slightly significant role in improving our morbidity and mortality statistics?

Current Allopathic, Ayurvedic therapy

The debates between all the different disciplines of medicine are long and arduous; trying and concise it from my perspective would be a gross injustice to science. However, in view of presenting a picture of each school of medicine, Ayurveda considers itself the ancient, time-tested, and natural method of medicine that is more in sync with the individual’s needs as opposed to Allopathy seeking to cure all with its modern chemical concoctions. There have been no conclusive studies that establish the superiority of one line of therapy over the other.

Both branches, along with the other AYUSH fields, offer treatment options for chronic conditions, including and not limited to Hypertension, Diabetes, Cardiovascular disorders, Asthma, COPD, etc. – with each offering a different outlook and approach to the problem. The most significant benefit for the patient can be obtained by the synchronous and complementary working of the two main branches of medical therapy in India.

Wearables vs OPD Care

Because of the nation’s burgeoning population and the very well-known shortage of healthcare workers(HCWs), Wearable Devices(WDs) have a vast scope in reducing the disease burden and the monitoring workload that is often needed and conducted through OPDs and health camps. A review of the use of wearable devices for enhancing adherence and telemedicine has found that they are very beneficial for the overall healthcare paradigm in reducing disease morbidity and enhancing monitoring and tracking.

Wearable Devices are classified into:

  1. Health and safety monitoring
  2. Chronic disease management
  3. Disease diagnosis and treatment
  4. Rehabilitation

Smartphones fall into category 1, while automated insulin pumps and blood sugar monitors are categories 2 and 3. Rehabilitation devices would include hearing aids, crutches, and the most low-tech but high utility device, spectacles! I think we can all agree that these are pretty vital and ubiquitous. However, this article deals with the new and the latest in wearables.

Wearable Technology? Is that even useful?

The era of Smartphones and the Internet-of-Things(IoT) has enabled our world to be even more accessible and connected. From the Apple Watch, which warns its users when it detects an abnormal heart rhythm, to the very basic exercise reminders on your smartphone, we are all surrounded by health-promoting and safeguarding measures, whether we like to admit it or not. In more ways than one, this is a blessing for the common public, who couldn’t be bothered with the infinite guidelines and regulations that medical professionals keep revising annually- for them, this handheld device is enough to keep them in optimum health. Smartphone-based technologies, however, have the drawback that they’re connected to a device with addictive potential that counters the health benefits the reminders on your ‘Health’ app might have. A systematic review into the benefits of wearables such as Fitbit in chronic diseases has found that they rarely slow down progression or improve disease prognosis other than exercise motivation.

Wearables New Innovations

Fitbit and other smartwatch brands which originated for tracking exercise markers for the fitness enthusiasts have now evolved to suit the health-conscious millennial generation, with built-in heart rate, respiration, ECG, and sleep trackers. As the wearable device market grows to adapt to the consumer’s felt needs, let’s look to see how the diagnostic and curative wearables have grown in the past few years.

Immutouch –touch a smart band that vibrates when users touch their face, potentially preventing them from catching diseases. How many times in the past few hours have you subconsciously touched your face? The average is 23 times an hour.

Recent advances in smartphone detection for Parkinson’s Disease have been documented in a Biomedical Engineering journal, which assesses cases by checking for gait abnormalities and handwriting changes. Pacemakers have probably been the most important invention of the past century, which gives a new life to heart attack victims. It has shrunk from a device that is worn on the waist to a tiny button-shaped tool directly resting in the chest.

Insulin Monitors and pumps have been the new find in the treatment of Insulin Dependent Diabetes. How convenient and relieving is it to forgo the daily injections – the device automatically detects the blood sugar and administers the requisite dose of Insulin. For individuals with Chronic Renal Disease, the Implantable Artificial Kidney is a biohybrid combining artificial filters and living cells which reduce the need for large quantities of water and continuous electrical supply. This lowers the barriers to home dialysis, making self-care renal replacement therapy more accessible and desirable. These are just a few of the thousands of new innovations coming up in the wearable devices sector, with even more to come, funded by grants and schemes by the government.

From smartphone reminders to self-controlled devices providing home care for individuals with chronic conditions, the modern healthcare system paints a truly complete and comprehensive picture of hope for a healthier future for all.

Best Use Scenarios for a ‘Healthy’ person

For most of us, who are apparently in the ‘healthy’ years of life, a wearable is a tool for motivating and promoting continued physical activity. Trust your smartphone or watch to keep you active for 45 minutes a day for 5-6 days a week while paying adequate attention to your diet and sleep. The vital point is to remember that chronic diseases often go undetected for long periods and, as such, might end up causing more harm than if they had been discovered and treated earlier.

Yearly health check-ups are vital in countering the rising wave of these ‘lifestyle’ diseases. Pay heed to the warnings and reminders that your health devices are blaring in your ears or flashing into your eyes – it just might save you from a disease-ridden life later on.

All the scary warnings aside, take time to de-stress; most lifestyle diseases have stress as the second or third most problematic risk factor. Learn to relax, find a hobby, make a routine, and don’t take on more than you can comfortably manage at a time. Happy living!

Conclusion

While wearable devices don’t have a proper and conclusively established benefit in health promotion, they have clear and visible implications for disease diagnosis, management, and rehabilitation. Gone are the days when patients were chained to a machine for their survival, wearable devices have brought about the revolution of the happy and healthy patient, who can enjoy life at their own pace and on their terms, not limited by the beeping of the hospital machinery and without fear of impending doom. Wearables are indeed a boon to modern medicine!

Featured image: Pexels

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About the author

Yash Kamath is a Third Year MBBS student at Seth GS Medical College. He keeps an avid interest in basically everything under the sun. He is currently involved in the social sector via multiple NGOs and is active in academic research. In his free time, you can find him with a novel or a computer, trying to make sense of the next nuance of the human condition.

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