Several data analyses indicate that a "wearable medical" ecosystem, composed of wearable devices, sensor technology, short-range wireless communication, and cloud computing/big data analytics, is entering a period of rapid development.
Yole Developpement‘s report suggests that the market size of medical health wearable products is expected to grow from 347 million units in 2019 to 754 million units in 2025, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14%. This growth is primarily driven by the demand for vital signs monitoring in both medical and consumer wearable markets. Omdia Healthcare is even more optimistic, forecasting that the market size of wearable medical/health devices will surpass one billion units by 2023, with a high CAGR of 22%.
Creating a “Wearable Clinic”
“There are currently two prominent social phenomena: the acceleration of an aging society and a severe shortage of medical resources. Therefore, there is a huge and urgent demand for mobile healthcare, which is why many people refer to smartwatches as ‘wearable clinics,'” said He Yuan, Senior Marketing Application Manager at ADI China Product Division, to International Electronics Business News.
Indeed, during the three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant shift in society’s demand for and attitude towards mobile health devices and services. For instance, healthcare professionals are more inclined to use remote monitoring to understand patients’ conditions, driving the industry towards clinical-grade measurement data monitoring, including blood oxygen saturation (SpO2), respiration, and temperature. Correspondingly, by reducing contact, the risk of healthcare professionals getting infected is minimized, treatment costs are reduced, and treatment results are still ensured.
This shift also applies to preventive monitoring and chronic disease management. Through extensive predictive screening in the population, high-risk individuals can be concentrated in specific areas for more detailed screening, or continuous tracking of indicators such as body temperature, SpO2, heart rate/ECG, and respiration can continue after discharge.
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is one application of preventive monitoring. As the most common symptom of irregular heartbeat, AFib increases the risk of stroke by 5 times. Early detection and treatment can potentially cure this condition. However, nearly 50% of AFib patients are asymptomatic, making early diagnosis challenging. Wide-scale screening is the only detection method for asymptomatic individuals, and some consumer products and prescription devices can detect AFib early, with results clinically recognized.
Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) for diabetes patients is a representative application of chronic disease management. Predictions indicate that the global number of diabetes patients will increase from 463 million in 2019 to 578 million by 2030. Traditional finger blood collection and glucose test strips provide single-point checks and cannot conveniently and timely detect long-term glucose trends. However, with continuous glucose monitors, patients can more effectively manage their health, reduce the risk of complications, and save nursing costs.
From a chip hardware perspective, current wearable health monitoring devices have reached the level of professional medical devices, and even exceed the standards of medical regulations. However, whether they have medical reference value depends on the manufacturers. From a market trend perspective, products must move in a direction that adds value, and for wearable health monitoring devices, having more features is undoubtedly valuable.
Challenges Faced by Wearable Devices
It is well-known that “health monitoring/management” and “medical care” are two entirely different concepts. Traditional medical care mostly deals with patients who already have health problems, while mobile health devices and services often play the role of a superficial “health steward,” monitoring changes in daily physiological indicators and making trend judgments and corresponding daily behavioral guidance.
However, even so, wearable health monitoring devices have found that being this “steward” is not an easy task. Factors such as inaccurate measurement data and weak user stickiness have directly led to significant challenges in the industry’s development. A common scenario is that patients strictly follow medical advice to take medication and exercise on time during treatment or immediately after treatment is completed. However, after a while, they tend to become lax and no longer fully comply with medical advice.
This is undoubtedly where wearable devices play a crucial role, allowing patients to wear wearable health devices to monitor their vital signs data and receive real-time reminders. However, the most common challenge currently faced by wearable technology is the pursuit of smaller yet powerful power solutions, with the difficulty lying in improving battery life. Especially as current wearable devices, on top of their inherent functions, add more intelligent modules such as AI processors, sensors, and GPS/audio modules.
Taking sensors as an example, to better monitor vital signs, an increasing number of sensors are integrated, such as bio-health sensors, PPG, ECG, and heart rate sensors. At the same time, devices also need to use GPS modules, accelerometers, or gyroscopes to determine the user’s movement status and location. Additionally, for convenient data analysis, not only do microcontrollers need to transmit and display data, but different devices also need data communication, and some devices even need to send data directly to the cloud.
Overall, comfort, accuracy, battery life, charging, and data collaboration are common challenges currently faced by wearable devices.
Will People Use Wearable Medical Devices Long Term?
At the end of July, Samsung launched its annual Galaxy Watch 6, featuring a “health tracking suite” as one of its main features, supporting features such as electrocardiogram, heart rate and heart rate alerts, blood pressure, menstrual cycle prediction, and fall detection. Apple also announced in June that iOS 17, iPadOS 17, and watchOS 10 would introduce mental health and vision health features.
However, a report from IDC shows that, affected by multiple adverse factors, the sales volume of wearable devices in the Chinese market in the first quarter of 2023 was 24.71 million units, a year-on-year decrease of 4.1%. In the smartwatch market, the sales volume was 5.9 million units, a year-on-year decrease of 16.7%. Among them, adult smartwatches were 3.1 million units, a year-on-year decline of 19.5%; children’s smartwatches had a shipment volume of 2.8 million units, a year-on-year decrease of 13.3%.
Pan Xuefei, Assistant Research Director of IDC China, expressed cautious optimism about the future and pointed out that breakthroughs in technology in the field of wrist-worn products in the health sector, the pace of recovery in the economic environment and consumer willingness, and the accuracy of product positioning for specific user groups will all have a long-term impact on the development of the wrist-worn market.
Seamless monitoring, comfortable wear, practical functionality, easy operation, low maintenance frequency, and no need for frequent battery replacement are undoubtedly the standards set for our ideal wearable medical devices. In this way, wearable devices that monitor patient conditions not only reduce the intervention frequency of medical staff but also increase the monitoring frequency, making the monitoring process more real-time and continuous, which can reduce overall hospitalization costs and is likely to be favored by consumers, hospitals, and doctors.
Especially for wearable products that can monitor the long-term and trend changes in vital sign signals, because consumers and doctors are concerned about how to avoid the occurrence of diseases outside the hospital equipment, that is, preventive care, and the early detection and treatment of diseases, that is, outpatient extension. Therefore, devices that can solve these problems will be favored by the market.
Susan, a product manager responsible for the medical business of a chip company, expressed a similar view. She stated that fitness and healthcare are the most likely areas for wearable products to succeed. In the future, the key factors determining the prospects of wearable devices are lower power consumption, smaller-sized chips, and the development of new battery technologies. Once these two development projects are combined with wearable devices, their operability and convenience will be greatly enhanced.
As for whether people will use wearable medical devices in the long term in the future, she believes it depends on the specific application field of wearable devices. “Continuous glucose monitoring is a successful example of long-term application; it is actually an electronic component patch embedded in a sensor.”
Regarding how to enhance user stickiness, He Yuan’s opinion is that low power consumption and miniaturization of products have made more and more people like wearable health monitoring devices. More importantly, people’s increasing emphasis on their own health is crucial.
“Many friends around me are losing weight and exercising. They need to regularly measure body fat and heart health. Over time, they have developed stickiness. Personally, I pay close attention to blood oxygen, especially during sleep. If sleep indicators are not good, it will have a significant impact on health, so regularly checking sleep quality statistics has become my habit,” said He Yuan. From the information he has, the current localization design in China is very down-to-earth, with customers gaining a lot and a high return on investment.
In addition to the above conventional applications, ADI is also trying to combine vital sign monitoring technology with automotive applications, such as using a steering wheel to monitor the health of the driver. He Yuan also reminded the industry to pay attention to two points: first, if you want to enter the medical diagnosis field, wearable health products must pass the corresponding medical device standard certification, which is difficult for many manufacturers; second, the products sold must comply with international information security standards to better protect personal information and user privacy.
Thinking about it, any emerging industry actually needs a certain amount of time for development and adjustment before it can reach a stable and mature growth stage, and the mobile health and medical industry is no exception. After two or three years of technological development and market adjustments, a large number of high-quality and well-reputed wearable medical products have received quite good market returns. Of course, some products have slowly faded out of the market due to unclear positioning and unclear differentiation, but this is the natural selection process of market adjustment and optimization, which is more conducive to the long-term stable development of the industry.