Smartwatches are missing a crucial market

From the mHealthNews archive
By Eric Wicklund

Amid all the hype surrounding the Apple Watch, Microsoft's new Surface Band, Pebble's new smartwatch – heck, the entire smartwatch/fitness band industry – one segment of the population is absent from the conversation.

The senior.

While home monitoring platforms – think Independa, Numera, Honeywell and Caremerge, to name just a few – are catering to an aging population that wants to stay at home, the wearable industry isn't targeting that demographic. They're skewing toward the younger generations, with sleek styling and fashionable accessories that promise health and wellness on the go.

"It's not particularly senior-friendly," says Andrew Parker, vice president of communications for iTOK, a computer technology advisory firm that specializes in helping seniors (and others) feel comfortable with technology. "There may be an effort there, but it doesn't meet the market's needs at all. … I think they'll fail before they get it right."

The problem? Most of the smartwatches and wearable fitness bands on the market have small screen sizes and functions that are difficult to access and use, due in part to the fact that they have limited space to work with. They're built for the tech-savvy, not a market that still uses Windows XP.

But to a population that consumes more than its share of healthcare expenditures, especially in chronic condition management, wearable monitors would be valuable. In fact, a survey conducted by iTOK last month that focused on heart health found that 30 percent of seniors currently use technology to monitor their heart – and 95 percent would use such technology if advised by their doctors.

Senior-focused mHealth is also a critical component in Accenture's 2014 Patient Engagement Survey. According to that survey, two of every three seniors want to use self-care technology to independently manage their health, and 62 percent are willing to wear a health-monitoring device to track vital signs.

Accenture officials also point to AARP reports that indicate record-level funding for digital health startups that focus on the over-50 market, especially vitals monitoring (investment topped $266 million in 2013, more than 2011 and 2012 combined).

While much of the wearable market now is focused on wellness and fitness sensors, a device targeted to seniors would have slightly different functions – the focus being not so much on preventative care as on managing current conditions.

The ideal wearable device for seniors, Parker says, would contain biometric monitoring – sensors for blood pressure, heart rate and blood glucose, to name just a few – and would have to be easy to wear, easy to read and easy to use. And it would have to be paired with a strong platform, offering real-time communications and connectivity with care team members.

Some home health monitoring platforms include pendants or similar wearables – think the "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up" device with a few more features – but most are focusing on PCs, laptops and tablets. In fact, an AARP survey found that PCs ranked first among technology favored by seniors, with tablets coming in second, e-readers coming in third and smartphones placing fourth.

One company bucking the trend is Lively, which markets a safety watch as part of its home health platform for seniors. The San Francisco-based company notes that its watch has a stylish design and easy-to-read display, offering one large button to push in case of emergency, and synching automatically with devices at home.

Even the AARP is marketing its own technology products. But those pale in comparison to the hype surrounding the Apple Watch.

While the smartwatch/fitness band market is decidedly consumer-facing, with healthcare opting to stand by the sidelines, Parker says any products geared toward the senior market will need strong back-end support.

"There has to be some real generous support offerings that come with the technology, and it has to be presented in such a way that seniors aren't frightened of it," he says. They need to be guided into the technology and made to feel at ease, with quick access to caregivers a necessity.

And most important, Parker says, healthcare needs to play an active role.

"They (vendors) absolutely should (market to seniors) and need to. The market is there, the need is there, the want is there," Parker says, "They're going to need to partner with doctors and hospitals and win them over."

After all, he notes, those millennials and GenXers scooping up Fitbits and Jawbones and drooling over the Apple Watch are the seniors of the future.