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Recently, we’ve watched companies pop up, promising injury recovery and digital physical therapy using wearable devices. Using this technology, these companies promise to reduce recovery time and provide data to clinicians.

But here’s the thing. Wearables are great until you look at the numbers, demographics, and challenges that go into putting them into use. And when it comes to their use both before and after a surgery, wearables could prove inconvenient or unnecessary. Worse, it’s important to ask whether forced adoption of new and uncomfortable technology could put additional stress on patients, increasing risk. 

Today, we’re going to look at the problems with wearables in healthcare today, especially when clinicians can provide a similar experience with a device that patients already know and use. 

Health Tech Wearables Might Be Cool, But…

Wearables are ‘cool’. Smartwatches can field calls, check messages, run apps, and give out some interesting details on your heart rhythm. Fitness trackers can uncover insights to improve workouts. A competitive cyclist could connect their computer to their wearable device, link everything with an app, and use this to look at speed, heart rate, cadence, pedal power, and more. 

While these are exciting use cases, they cater to a younger, tech-savvy, and fitness-focused market. A wearable user is going to know how to set things up, troubleshoot problems and use the device with little assistance. 

This kind of person knows how to work with the miniscule (or nonexistent) interface, easily navigating tiny bubbles or making sense of what a flashing light or vibration pattern means.

As ‘cool’ as these devices are, it’s worth asking whether they are making care better or worse for the average physical therapy patient or surgical candidate. Here are just some of the reasons wearables might not be the secret to engagement.

The Hurdle of Hardware Adoption

Analysts say that smartwatches and fitness trackers are “skyrocketing in popularity.” But skyrocketing is a relative term. Are these devices more popular than they were in recent years? Yes. But here’s the thing—smartwatch adoption hit 14% in 2018

Look at the larger wearable market and the reality isn’t much brighter. According to a Forrester Research report titled Consumer Wearables Generate Good Data, But It’s From The Wrong Consumers— And It’s Not Helping Healthcare Providers, only 21 percent of patients say they use a consumer wearable.

Compare this with smartphone adoption and the difference is clear. Smartphones are pervasive, with even those who consider themselves technologically challenged understanding how it works. According to Pew Research, smartphones continue to find adoption, with 81 percent of US adults using one. 

Is the Wearable Audience Too Limited? 

When looking at the potential use case for any kind of digital health technology, you have to look at the people who would be comfortable using it. Unfortunately, when looking at the average wearable user, adoption falls into an extremely limited market.

Wearable Device Users—A Specific Demographic?

According to a study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Patterns of Use and Key Predictors for the Use of Wearable Health Care Devices by US Adults: Insights from a National Survey, wearables find adoption from a relatively specific user base. When asking what kind of people were currently using wearable devices, the national survey found that 

“Women (16.25%), White individuals (19.74%), adults aged 18-50 years (19.52%), those with some level of college education or college graduates (25.60%), and those with annual household incomes greater than US $75,000 (17.66%) were most likely to report using wearable health care devices. […] With only younger, healthier, wealthier, more educated, technoliterate adults using wearables, other groups have been left behind.”

Michigan State University study confirmed similar usage among the 65 and older population, finding that the kind of person who will use a wearable activity tracker (WAT) skews female, frequently exercises, and has more education.

More Diverse Audience for Smartphone Users

Comparably, smartphone use continues to grow steadily. Pew Research notes that adoption rates are similar by race, economic status, education, and age. Since 2011, smartphone use rose from 35% of young, tech-savvy, and well educated professionals to an 81% rate of ownership spread across all groups. 

When paired with a 53% tablet adoption rate, at least one smart device can be found in nearly every home, regardless of age, race, economic status or education level.

A Better Approach: Accessible Digital Health via The Patient’s Smartphone

When looking at delivering patient-centric digital health, your apps, solutions, and platforms need to be as diverse as your injured workers. As we discussed in our article on the importance of diversity and inclusion in digital health, real solutions can’t ignore the vast majority of users. 

Unfortunately, wearables fail to deliver on nearly all accounts:

  • Case Managers need to convince patients to use technology, show them how to use everything, and provide ongoing support. Technology is more accessible when the injured worker, patient, or user can access the program from devices they already own, and wearables present an additional and costly requirement. Learn how to help your case managers promote adoption here
  • Healthcare Systems need to justify the cost and the benefits of a program to a payer. With low adoption rates and a high potential for discontinued use, wearables present an additional risk for those footing the bill. Learn how the right technology can lower cost of care here
  • Patients need to feel comfortable using a product. Wearables often present a steeper learning curve, require additional hardware, and other challenges that will decrease adoption and willingness to use. Discover five ways to help patients adopt technology here

The Simplest Solution is Usually the Right One

Posited by philosopher William of Ockham in the fourteenth century, Occam’s razor states that “plurality should not be posited without necessity,” or that when comparing two theories, the simpler explanation is usually the best. 

The problem with wearable devices in MSK treatment is simple: They’re not just unnecessary, they add extra steps and might even increase the stress a patient suffers when he or she is approaching surgery. 

Whether it’s designing for adoption or effectiveness, the right kind of solution should be approachable, accessible, and usable—no matter the tech-savviness, reading level, or device being used.

PeerWell: Approachable, Accessible, and Advanced

With PeerWell, we set out to make sure that products take the most efficient path to care. Using little more than the patient’s own device, we enable clinicians to build customized programs for patients, breaking prehabilitation and rehabilitation tasks into 10-15 minute bite-sized tasks. 

Our Smart Motion™ Technology tracks patient movement and range of motion using AI, smartphone or tablet cameras, and sensors. This delivers what the patient needs using the technology they feel comfortable with—wherever they are in their journey to musculoskeletal recovery.

Get to know more about how PeerWell works and how our clinically-proven technology reduces the number of required outpatient physical therapy sessions required by an average of 22% and delivers a 73% reduction in post-op physical therapy consultation.

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