Why Wearables Matter for Medtech

Wearable medical devices are still in their infancy—their future mostly unwritten. But in no way does that mean traditional medical device companies should be waiting on the sidelines, says Alex Evans and John Westwood, partners at L.E.K. Consulting who coauthored the report Beyond Health Wristbands: A Vision Of Next-Generation Wellness Technology.

The Wello smart case is an example of a forward-looking wearable, according to Evans and Westwood.

Medical device companies should aim high and think about the applications of wearables rather than how it might relate to their current technologies, Westwood says. They should think about how they could leverage wearables to benefit all of the healthcare stakeholders—especially the consumers.

The prospect of medical-grade wearables depends on the disease area, according to Westwood. “You are going to have to go into something where you really can impact the standard of care,” he says. “A big unmet need, which you can really impact. There are diseases where compliance is an issue. Or in diagnosis: diabetes is a big area that you could go after because a lot of patients in the Type II–area are not well managed.”

Evans agrees: “With advances, there is that potential to tap that latent demand and simplify people’s lives, deliver solutions that might treat a chronic health condition and really help them achieve a specific fitness goal as opposed to a generic measure of activity.”

“I think it becomes really powerful and then you can overlay services and other types of things. That is where we see the big win,” says Evans, who is managing director and partner in L.E.K. Consulting’s Los Angeles office.

Count insulin pumps as wearables, and there is then already an area where medtech companies are leaders in the field. But for the most part, Westwood and Evans see a wait and see approach.

The potential for wearables remains murky. 

A recent PwC report suggested major implications. PwC found that 56% of consumers polled thought that wearables would lead to the average lifespan increasing by a decade. Nearly half said wearables would bring down obesity rates, while 42% said people’s average athletic performance would increase dramatically.

But it is often the case that consumer opinion is not the best metric of predicting where a technology is headed, according to Evans.

“You have to take forward-looking consumer research not just with a grain of salt but maybe a bag of salt,” Evans says. “You could have asked consumers in 1995: ‘would you want an iPhone?’”

While the public may not have a clear vision of the wearable future, it is clear that there is significant interest from consumers in the technology. Insurance and healthcare companies are considering the possibilities of how they could leverage wearables, as are tech giants including Apple, Google, and Samsung.

Still, first generation wearables are relatively unimpressive—often offering little more than basic movement tracking functionality.

Similarly, future wearables will need to be much more user friendly and powerful to succeed. With the first generation devices, there is a fair amount of backend work and charging. The costs of the devices will likely need to come down as well. The PwC report found that most consumers wouldn’t be willing to pay more than $100 for a wearable device. Considerably more people would be open to wearing them if insurance companies subsidized them. 

“There is a big disconnect in what consumers actually want versus what is on the market,” Evans says. A similar chasm exists in many consumer technology markets. “A classic one is Internet video. It has been around for a long time, but streaming video was a horrible experience in 2008,” Evans notes. But bandwidth increased and costs decreased over the years. “Now you have 50 million people signed up on Netflix for streaming.”

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz