Wearable technology isn’t all about Fitbits. Providence product-design company Loft is front and center in a wearable medical technology industry that’s going beyond mere sensing of symptoms all the way to pre-warnings and emergency notifications.
COVID-19’s impact on this segment of the manufacturing field may not be a complete negative in terms of diversion, says Loft Director of Engineering David Baker. He tells PBN that there is opportunity, even in a pandemic.
PBN: In a blog post, you mention that wearable medical-device technology has become more stable in terms of monitoring things such as blood-sugar levels and nausea in patients, and is now becoming “proactive.” How so?
BAKER: With the ability to store and analyze data thanks to ever-updating algorithms, an individual’s medical baselines can be monitored and trendlines set. These can be used to watch for changes and catch trigger points – small changes that occur at the beginning of an episode. As more sensor types and more links can be found between triggers and episodes, we could see an increase in pre-warnings.
For instance, an increase in sweat and a slight lowering of body temperature in patients suffering from epilepsy could be a warning sign of an epileptic seizure. Compared to standard wearable devices like the iWatch or the Fitbit that simply record and track your data, the goal of proactive wearables is to use these sensors to read the warning signs ahead of the episode and provide interventions – whether that be vibrations, heating or cooling, or even sending alerts to the wearer or their health care professionals. At Loft, we see devices like these as the future of health technology.
PBN: How has COVID-19 affected this proactive technology advancement, if at all?
BAKER: COVID-19 has affected different companies and organizations to different extents within the health tech space, but certainly everyone in the industry is grappling with both the uncertainty and urgency that this pandemic has brought with it. Some are focusing on PPE [personal protective equipment] and dropping their innovation cycles, while others have jumped at the opportunity to re-center, using the downtime from the grind to dive deeper into issues that will help in the fight against COVID-19 and other health issues that will affect us all.
It should also be mentioned that in light of COVID-19, the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] has announced several crucial easements that are favorable to medical technology and medical-device developers, intended to encourage innovation. The key will be innovating quickly but safely in order to take advantage of this relaxation – while there are funds available and before the FDA makes any reversals.
PBN: How has COVID-19 impacted your industry?
BAKER: Our industry has certainly slowed down. Outsourced engineering and industrial design companies rely heavily on client projects to sustain the business as most firms don’t have their own physical product sales. With the uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought to life in general, companies in nearly every category have reduced spending to weather the storm.
That being said, situations like these are opportunities for agile firms like Loft to get scrappy and pivot to where we can add value. In fact, we recently partnered with Rhode Island Commerce [Corp.] and the Rhode Island National Guard to build mobile COVID-19 testing sites. We had the space, we had the staff and we understood that this was an opportunity that could be expanded far beyond Rhode Island. Things move fast: we built our first two trailers in two weeks and are working to fine-tune the design and secure patents as we begin a new round of building. This is the sort of environment in which we as designers and engineers are trained to do our best thinking in. We’re excited about the potential of this particular project.
PBN: Do wearables encourage us to be more engaged in our own health care?
BAKER: I believe so. Having a record and sense of our own personal normal is critical. For starters, from body temperature to heart rate, not everyone has the same baseline. There is no “one size fits all.” Secondly, at an annual physical, a single data point such as blood pressure might be skewed by a once-in-a-while greasy lunch, soda or doctor’s office anxiety. Testing during these spikes could lead to a wrong diagnosis and unnecessary treatments – further worsening the health of an individual.
Wearables can help people understand their bodies’ own natural rhythms, which in turn can help them advocate for themselves while they’re at the doctor, or even help them understand that they need to get to a doctor right away.
PBN: What is the most difficult part in keeping all of this new, individualized wearable data safe?
BAKER: Honestly, I’m not even sure what would be considered the most difficult part – it’s all difficult! Testing and retesting the safeguards to keep this super-private, super-intimate data safe is of the utmost importance, not only because of the HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] requirements but because it is the right thing to do to protect those we are trying to help.
Looking ahead, I know that maintaining privacy will become even more difficult as technologies start to lean on one another and share information between platforms. With so many clients in the med-tech space, it’s an issue we’re watching closely.
Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.
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