Societal benefits of leveraging personal data from health monitoring devices
Stanford Medicine and Apple launched the Apple Heart Study in 2017. The study highlights the potential for large-scale collaborations to advance medical research and improve public health outcomes.
Their aim was to detect atrial fibrillation (a common irregular heart rhythm) using the heart rate sensor on the Apple Watch. More than 400,000 people in the United States took part in this entirely remote study, making it one of the largest of its kind. Participants used an Apple Watch in conjunction with the associated Heart Study app. The app continuously monitored the participants' heart rates and sent notifications to those who had irregular heart rhythms, potentially indicating atrial fibrillation.
In recent years, the rapid evolution of health monitoring devices has revolutionised how we track and manage our well-being. Wearable gadgets, ranging from smartwatches to fitness trackers to earbuds, have the potential to collect an abundance of personal health data.
Wearables on the market are predominantly wrist-worn and allow people to track their overall fitness by setting goals and receiving notifications on their activities like steps taken, calories burned and sedentary minutes. They can also measure sleep patterns and check in on stress levels with heart-rate variability readings. Some devices also show blood pressure activity, ECG readings, blood oxygen saturation levels, and body temperature.
Currently, this data is used by individuals to manage their own health, optimise exercise routines, set personal goals, track progress, and make informed decisions about their lifestyle and habits. But there’s great potential in the aggregation and analysis of huge volumes of personal health data for society as a whole, which is largely unexplored. While getting privacy and data security right is critical to the future use of wearables, the potential power of enormous and ongoing datasets cannot be ignored.
The bigger picture: public health
Improving medical research and treatment, as the Apple Heart Study showed, is an area in which wearables can offer handsfree results from a wide range of people. Health monitoring devices generate real-time data on various health parameters. When combined into large datasets, this information could provide valuable insights into public health trends, contributing to the identification of risk factors, disease patterns, and the development of effective treatments. The data could help shape public health policies and contribute to medical research and advancements. By continuously monitoring vital signs and collecting data on individual health metrics, devices can also aid in the early detection of potential health issues. Analysing aggregated data can reveal patterns that may indicate the onset of diseases or conditions, allowing for timely interventions and preventive measures.
Merging data: more efficient treatment
One of the current challenges in healthcare is the lack of seamless communication and integration among different medical devices. Patients can go home with various monitoring devices that operate independently, making it difficult to consolidate and interpret the data effectively. However, all-in-one health monitoring devices have the potential to overcome this issue. Synchronising data from multiple sources into a centralised cloud-based platform, could give a more coherent picture of an individual's health.
This comprehensive understanding would enable better diagnosis, treatment planning, and more efficient monitoring of chronic conditions.
Better collaboration between healthcare professionals
Merging data from different health monitoring devices could promote better collaboration among healthcare professionals involved in an individual’s care. This integration could lead to more accurate diagnoses, streamlined care plans, and improved outcomes. Remote monitoring of individuals with chronic conditions or in post-operative care could enhance patient comfort by enabling them to be safely monitored at home, reduce hospital re-admissions, and facilitate timely interventions.
Aggregating data from diverse sources would allow for advanced data analytics and machine learning techniques to uncover hidden patterns, correlations, and predictive models. Such insights could significantly enhance disease management, public health strategies, and preventive measures.
Privacy and consent
But to ensure the responsible and beneficial use of personal health data, organisations considering using wearables in this way must prioritise security, and the ethical use of data, as well as the individual’s privacy and consent.
Robust data protection measures must be in place to safeguard personal health information. Strict adherence to privacy regulations, anonymisation techniques, and secure data storage practices are paramount. Transparency in data collection practices, purpose, and potential benefits must be communicated clearly to users. And data collected from health monitoring devices should only be used for legitimate and previously stated purposes, such as medical research, population health studies, and improving healthcare outcomes.
Organisations using these devices for such purposes would need to establish and follow ethical guidelines to ensure responsible data use.
The benefits of ear-worn devices
Ear-worn devices, such as smart earbuds or hearing aids, could play a crucial role in this landscape with their unique potential to offer racially agnostic biometric monitoring, seamless data collection, and capabilities for mental health tracking.
Technology from EarSwitch®️, for example, could be used to capture contextual data and integrate it with other health metrics providing valuable insights for personalised recommendations and interventions. Additionally, its use for remote health monitoring could enable continuous care and support for individuals with chronic conditions.
Comprehensive biometric monitoring: EarMetrics®️ technology in ear-worn wearables has the potential to collect a range of biometric data, including heart rate, body temperature, blood oxygen levels, asthma and heart failure monitoring, and blood pressure. By continuously monitoring these vital signs, the device could provide a more comprehensive health profile compared to other, more limited options.
Accuracy: Data is one thing, but reliable data is another. Ear-worn devices offer the advantage of being in close proximity to the heart and the blood supply to the brain, which can provide more accurate and reliable data than wrist-worn devices. Inside the ear is less affected by skin colour, heat, or activity, which can impair accuracy in wrist-worn devices.
Mental health monitoring: It is possible to incorporate sensors in the ear capable of monitoring eye movement. These could contribute to identifying patterns related to mental health conditions like anxiety or depression. By tracking changes in eye movements or physiological responses (such as heart rate variability), these devices could alert individuals or healthcare professionals to potential issues, leading to early intervention and appropriate support.
Next steps: adoption and integration into mainstream healthcare
At EarSwitch®️, we’re working with healthcare providers, hardware manufacturers, and patient focus groups to find out what our technology is capable of. Our work includes refining the accuracy of the biometric measurements and expanding the range of health metrics that can be captured.
Collaboration, research, regulatory compliance, and integration efforts all play pivotal roles in driving the adoption of ear-worn devices in healthcare.
Collaboration with healthcare professionals is key to ensure that the collected health data aligns with medical standards and requirements. This collaboration can help validate the reliability and accuracy of the data collected, establish guidelines for data interpretation, and ensure that the devices meet the needs of healthcare providers.
We are in the process of conducting trials and validation studies to evaluate the effectiveness, safety, and usability of ear-worn devices in real-world healthcare settings. These studies seek to provide evidence of the devices' clinical value, establish performance benchmarks, and demonstrate the benefits they offer in specific healthcare contexts.
It is critical to establish, before any product is used publicly, that any ear-worn devices comply with relevant healthcare regulations and standards, such as those related to medical devices, data privacy, and security. Compliance with these regulations enhances user trust and confidence in these new ways of working and facilitates their integration into healthcare systems.
When people feel they have not been consulted and do not understand how their data may be used, problems can arise – as we have seen with face recognition technology. Public education about the benefits and potential applications of ear-worn devices in health monitoring allow the opportunity to address concerns related to data privacy and security before the technology is rolled out. This important groundwork will enable individuals to make informed decisions about using these devices and actively participate in their healthcare management.
We’re excited to be part of this space in which interest in the possibilities of health data from wearables is rapidly growing. The potential for leveraging health data from wearables for personalised healthcare, preventive measures, as well as population health management is huge.
Get in touch to discuss how we might work together!