Goal is low cost, printable, high quality electronic devices making an essential contribution to digital healthcare.

There have been signs in Europe of softening demand for wearables monitoring fitness and sport performance. But the health sector of the European wearables market is full of optimism about the future.

The sector is considered to have reached a stage where it needs to go in a new direction to fulfil the huge potential it has in the digital society of the future. The vision is of a sector of low cost, printable but high quality electronic devices making an essential, long term contribution to digital healthcare.

Market researchers are forecasting double digit growth in wearables sales through to at least the mid-2020s, with much of the increase in demand coming from medical devices, measuring heart rhythms, blood pressure patterns, glucose levels and other clinical indicators. Wearables will be designed and made to deal with more specific medical conditions than at present.

They will become a major source of data for doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals and researchers conducting clinical trials and expanding knowledge on the causes and treatment of diseases, particularly among the old and chronically ill.

The main target groups will not be so much fitness conscious young people as at present but patients, mostly elderly, who will be encouraged by healthcare professionals and providers to use electronic monitoring devices to manage their health.

The shift to medical devices in the wearables sector has been slower in Europe than in the US. But it is likely soon to be catching up.

Europe has the advantage of highly centralized, public sector-funded healthcare systems. These are considered to be well placed to benefit from digital health schemes based on the secure collection, storage and processing of data from large numbers of patients using wearables and other forms of portable monitoring equipment.

Some governments and politicians have already moved to take advantage of existing healthcare infrastructures to start building electronics-based healthcare systems. The big attraction for them is that e-health is a means of decreasing costs while also raising the quality and efficiency of care.

The small Eastern European state of Estonia is turning itself into an e-health country in which data from wearables and other monitoring equipment are used to push up healthcare standards.

As the current holders of the presidency of the European Union, which rotates around the EU member states every six months, the Estonian government has initiated an EU-wide program of digitalization of healthcare.

Challenges Facing Wearables in Healthcare
But moves across Europe into digital health could be both a massive opportunity to electronic component and device manufacturers but also a big challenge.

They will not only be expected to supply low-priced printable and flexible products, but of a much higher standard in terms of accuracy, durability and diversity than those currently available on the wearables market.

The requirement for greater quality has been underlined by the EU’s recent introduction of new, tighter regulations covering healthcare wearables and other medical devices. Many products whose safety and reliability manufacturers have been able to self-certify will have to be approved by officially appointed standards certification bodies.

The main drivers in the market for medical wearables also want better performing and more versatile products. These include not just healthcare professionals but leading pharmaceutical and medical equipment manufacturers, which are expanding into the sector, as well as relative newcomers such as telecommunications specialists running data collection, storage and distribution networks.

The growing number of research institutes and university departments in Europe which have been focusing on wearables have helped to raise the numbers of new technologies under development. These cover the hardware and software for sensors and other components, the devices themselves and the communications infrastructure for the collection, dissemination and analysis of data.

R&D projects are helping to advance connectivity both within and between devices and between different wearables data networks. They are also helping to provide the first wave of technologies specifically created for wearables, especially in the burgeoning segment of e-textiles.

The strategy being adopted by many wearables companies, particularly those offering printable and flexible components and devices, has been to link up with partners in the healthcare sector or the operation of communications networks.

Visiomed, a leading French specialist in medical wearables and portable monitoring devices, set up a partnership in July 2017 with Cegedim, a French health technologies and services company, which will expand the availability of Visiomed’s products to healthcare professionals.

Last year Visiomed established a global alliance with the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to develop telemedicine services for patients and doctors and nurses and other healthcare providers.

Some wearables companies are involved in pan-European multidisciplinary research projects. One of the biggest – called WELCOME and partly EU funded – is developing a vest with sensors for monitoring in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) sufferers chest sounds, pleural effusions, arrhythmias, atrial fibrillation and other indicators. The partners included wearables specialists Smartex of Italy, Inventya, a UK development consultancy, Ireland’s Royal College of Surgeons, hospital groups and CSEM, Switzerland’s R&D center for electronics and microtechnologies.

A lot of the current integration of wearables technologies into the broader healthcare services sectors has resulted from diversification of healthcare and telecommunications companies.

Nokia, now focusing on creating and operating data networks in sectors like health services after selling its smartphone business to Microsoft, has entered the digital health products business through the takeover of the French wearables company Withings.

This vertical integration initiative is part of Nokia’s strategy to become a provider of network capabilities to connect mobile health, telemedicine and other segments of digital medicine to healthcare services.

A similar strategy but on a smaller scale is being pursued by Bittium, a Finnish specialist in wireless technologies mainly in the defense sector, which has expanded by acquisitions and partnerships into wearables for health monitoring. It also offers R&D services and wireless connectivity to wearable product developers.

Philips of the Netherlands, a leader in integrated diagnostics systems, reinforced its presence last year in monitoring informatics with the introduction of a system comprising smart devices based on wearable biosensors with the support of clinical decision software.

The pharmaceutical multinational GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is moving into digital health to aid medication adherence, symptom tracking, diagnosis and treatment. One of its first digital projects has been a scheme to help asthma patients in its UK home market by integrating the management of their illness with the use of fitness monitoring wearables.

“As more people use (apps) to help manage their health, we found that people wanted to connect their health and fitness apps together,” explained Kai Gait, GSK’s global digital director.

The full integration of wearables and other digital devices into Europe’s health services will require a lot of public sector investment in IT infrastructure. That could take time.