The global wearable healthcare technology market is made up of devices that users wear – on their wrists, feet, heads, or as fabric – and includes smartwatches and activity trackers like Fitbit, as well as medical monitoring devices used to track serious conditions such as diabetes and asthma.
Wearable healthcare works by collecting a user’s wellbeing and fitness data, and creating a personalised database of the user’s health metrics. The wearer can then use that to track various metrics, challenge themselves against health, fitness and wellbeing goals, or have their data collected for remote monitoring by a healthcare professional.
Here we look at the key medical and consumer wearable health technology trends of 2021 and beyond, plus look at the overall industry performance, wearable healthcare profit margins, and uptake by the insurance industry.
The global wearable healthcare technology market – outlook and value
The global wearable healthcare technology market is made up of devices that users wear – on their wrists, feet, heads, or as fabric – such as smartwatches and activity trackers like Fitbit, as well as medical monitoring devices used to track serious conditions such as diabetes and asthma.
They work by collecting a user’s wellbeing and fitness data, and creating a personalised database of the user’s health metrics. The wearer can then use that to track various metrics, challenge themselves against health, fitness and wellbeing goals, or simply have their data collected for remote monitoring by a healthcare professional.
“The pandemic has heightened awareness of unexpected illnesses and health issues, and how consumers can track and manage their own needs”
Internationally, the wearable healthcare technology market has been growing rapidly with devices becoming more commonplace as consumers seek to create customised wellbeing experiences.
Interest in the market hit its peak in the mid 2000s, before settling down as the devices became part of everyday life. However, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has provided a recent boost to the industry, with consumers becoming more invested in tracking their own health with minimal engagement with others. The pandemic has also heightened awareness of unexpected illnesses and health issues, and how consumers can help track and manage their own needs.
The market size currently sits at around US$30 billion, after experiencing rapid growth in recent years. The outlook for the industry is extremely positive, and it is expected to be worth nearly US$200 billion by 2027, with the number of wearable devices soaring past one billion by 2022.
Profit margins in the wearable healthcare technology market
The wearable healthcare technology market, now worth around $30 billion, is split into a number of segments with varying levels of growth potential. Overall, its compound annual growth rate is sitting around 16% with high revenue growth across a number of segments.
The industry’s supply chains have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and growth has been affected. However, the industry is expected to recover rapidly as interest in healthcare spikes.
The wristwear segment is the biggest revenue driver in the industry, reaching nearly half of revenue share by 2019. One of the biggest players in this space is Fitbit, which was an early competitor with smartwatches and is credited with starting a fitness craze around the world. Fitbit launched an Initial Public Offering (IPO) in 2015, and its share price jumped by 50% on listing. However, enthusiasm for the brand then waned and the share price dropped over the next few years.
Wearable fitness pioneer Fitbit was recently acquired by Google.
The company has recently been sold to Google which has called it a “clear pioneer in the industry” and one that has “built a vibrant community of more than 29 million active users”.
Beyond startups such as Fitbit, other major players in the market include bigger technology companies such as Apple and Nike.
However, the dominance of Apple has proved a challenge for some, and Nike was forced to pull back on its brand of fitness tracker, FuelBand, in 2014 after struggling to get traction. Apple and Nike subsequently partnered to create the Apple Watch Nike.
Generally, Apple’s wearable business has proved a hugely valuable segment of the business, with revenues rising to US$10 billion in the last quarter of 2020. Revenue in the wearables business outstripped revenue from Mac computer sales.
The dramatic rise in revenue at Apple’s wearables business is reflecting the shift in society of computers being a wearable product, as opposed to one that sits in an office. So while the experience of Fitbit has shown it can be difficult to carve out profits, Apple’s wearables trajectory shows the market remains a viable and attractive business proposition.
Latest trends in medical monitoring devices and wearable health technology
The wearable technology industry is constantly evolving, as companies find new ways to track health and wellbeing. The Covid-19 pandemic has also accelerated innovation in the industry, as it has provided a huge boost for personalised healthcare.
The industry is leading the way toward a world where increasingly sophisticated ‘computers’ are with us at every step, from wristbands, to shoes, headsets, and glasses.
The metrics being tracked are also evolving at pace, with wearable products now able to monitor a user’s glucose levels, hydration status and sweat levels, along with the more traditional trackers such as steps and heart rate.
Commentary around Google’s recent purchase of Fitbit gives an indication of where the wearables industry is headed, and how it is expanding and improving what it can offer the user.
In a 2021 blog, Google noted the introduction of its most advanced smartwatch, the Fitbit Sense, which adds a number of new metrics to the tracking of wellbeing. The new product helps the user manage stress through tracking the likes of heartbeat rhythms, oxygen saturation and breathing rate. The introduction of these more sophisticated metrics creates a far fuller picture of health for the user than previously available.
Beyond technology strapped to the body, innovations in the industry also include the likes of ‘smart fabrics’ or textiles, which are embedded with sensors to track user metrics.
The technology can be woven through fabric, and used to track, for example, the wearer’s body heat or perspiration. It can then respond to the user’s needs, such as cooling down.
Consumer trends in wearable health tech
The wearable health technology industry has been expanding in recent years, but the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has provided a significant boost in demand.
At the time of writing the coronavirus has been responsible for the deaths of nearly 2.5 million people worldwide, and many countries remain in the grip of the pandemic, despite lockdowns and the rollout of vaccines.
As such, consumers are seeking to track their own health metrics and signs, which can potentially also include the detection of Covid-19, according to reports published early in 2021 in Nature Electronics.
Recent studies show that wearable fitness devices can provide early detection of Covid-19, potentially lifting the burden from manual lab tests.
Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine and Case Western University have found that usage of particular data sets can identify cases of Covid-19 before symptoms are shown. The researchers looked in particular at heart rates, and how aberrations may indicate the presence of the illness. As part of their work, they created an online tool that could be used to assist in identifying the infection in its early stages.
While such research remains preliminary, it does show the potential for wearables to be used in ways that contribute significantly to medical needs.
“It shows the potential for wearables to be used in ways that contribute significantly to medical needs”
Beyond the health benefits, consumers are gaining from the increasing sophistication of the products for lifestyle and athletic purposes.
Wearables now come in several forms – as glasses, watches, wristbands, fabric – and consumers are able to choose what suits their lifestyle, and which metrics they want to track for their own needs.
Athletes, for example, are able to use wearables to improve performance by tracking metrics such as core body temperatures and hydration. Coaches are then able to respond to those indicators, protecting the health of the athletes and also contributing to better performances.
For the layperson, wearables can be used to track something as simple as steps or heartbeat, which can help with weight loss, and general health and wellbeing.
Wearable health technology and insurance
Wearable technology is potentially a gamechanger in the insurance space. Wearables create an incentive for healthier ways of living, and proactive management of personal care and wellbeing.
As such, companies and insurers are seeing benefits in supplying wearables to staff or customers.
“Access to data, with permission, gives the insurer a clear set of metrics”
Insurers benefit in a number of ways from customers’ use of wearables. The access to data, with permission, gives the insurer a clear set of metrics to assess the user’s health and wellbeing status. In turn, this can be used to better assess and refine offerings the insurer is able to make to the customer, while also ensuring transparency around any health issues.
As wearables become more advanced, insurers will be able to use them to personalise the customer experience, ensuring the cover provided matches the customer’s health status as accurately as possible.
Wearable tech and health and fitness
Wearable tech has long gone hand-in-hand with the health and fitness industry. Wearables can be useful for all athletes, from the elite to the amateur, and provide incredibly valuable information to improve performance and prevent injury.
For elite athletes, wearables can provide metrics that are specific to their sport and particular needs. For example, sensors sewn into a sportsperson’s uniform or shoes can provide real time feedback on performance, including speed, balance, and motion. Further, sensors can be used to alert coaches to early signs of injury such as concussion or over-exertion.
Motion sensors included in sports gear, such as bats, can also be used to assess a player’s performance and provide data designed to create improvements.
Beyond the benefits provided to elite athletes, wearable tech offers advantages to amateur athletes. Something as basic as counting steps, a commonplace way to reach health goals, is a tool widely used by consumers. This data can be used in conjunction with calorie measurements, for those looking to monitor their weight.
For those looking to more closely track their fitness and wellbeing, metrics such as heart rate, pace, breathing rate and other simple measures can be added to the dataset to show a fuller picture of health and the achievement of goals.
Wearable sports products are also able to tap into personal medical devices, meaning the datasets are becoming increasingly bespoke and useful for performance analysis.
Wearable tech for managing chronic health conditions
Wearable technology has proved highly valuable to help manage health conditions. For general health purposes, the devices are able to collect data to show any patterns or concerns with metrics such as heartbeat and breathing. This basic data can prove very helpful for medical experts should diseases or illness arise. More complex data such as CT scanning and ultrasound images can also be gathered from the likes of Google Glass Enterprise Edition.
Beyond general healthcare tracking, wearables are now being used to support the management of serious health concerns such as asthma and diabetes.
Technology is steadily improving the remote management of health conditions.
Asthma, which is the most common chronic condition in children, is one area where researchers are able to use wearables to help prevent medical events. Wearables with sensors that track a patient’s breathing and oxygen levels, along with environmental factors such as pollen count, are used to help prevent asthma attacks.
Diabetes is also a disease which is benefitting from the use of wearables. Wearable products are now able to assess glucose levels by inserting sensors just under the skin, meaning users can track and manage their own health needs. Some applications are also set up to alert healthcare providers should there be concerns that need a rapid response.
The use of wearables in healthcare, and the ability to track a patient’s vitals in real time, holds huge appeal for medical experts and consumers.
However, incorporating wearables and their database into medical systems will likely be a challenging and long-term process, and the full benefits may take some time to emerge.
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Article by Greg Roughan in collaboration with our team of inventory management and business specialists. Greg has been writing, publishing and working with content for more than 20 years. His writing motto is ‘don’t be boring’. His outdoors motto is ”I wish I hadn’t brought my headtorch’, said nobody, ever’. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand, with his family.