Chronic diseases don’t just exist at the doctor’s office – they are a part of everyday activities for many patients. This is particularly true for chronic gastrointestinal diseases, which can sometimes take years to diagnose and even longer to control. Wearable technology can help patients and gastroenterologists track symptoms, evaluate diet and exercise routines, and manage the day-to-day effects of a number of chronic conditions in meaningful ways.
Both irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are chronic diseases, meaning they are not curable, but instead managed with long-term care and therapy. Despite great public interest in gut microbiome, for example, there had not much technology to help patients identify triggers that cause IBS and IBD flare-ups or to address emerging issues before they turn into major problems. That is, until wearable tech came along.
Wearable medical technology products are safe and effective tools that can improve a patient’s health and wellness at home. They can track vital signs and symptoms and suggest changes to diet and exercise based on the stored information. Some wearable devices even emit electrical pulses directly to the brain to ease abdominal pain. Others sense bowel sounds and assess the movements of muscles near the digestive tract.
The technology can also serve as an early warning system that reduces flare-ups or other health problems that might otherwise result in costly trip to the emergency department and reduced outcomes. A team of researchers at University of Texas at Dallas has designed a wearable device that can detect IBD flare-ups before the wearer feels symptoms, for example. The wristwatch-like device monitors sweat for the IBD biomarkers interleukin-1β and C-reactive protein (CRP). The proof-of-concept study was the first to show that CRP in present in human sweat. It was also the first to demonstrate that the two biomarkers could be detected in sweat.
The number of connected wearable devices has more than doubled globally just within the past three years, according to Statistica, leaping from 325 million devices in 2016 to an impressive 722 million in 2019. Statistica predicts there will be more than a billion such devices in use by 2022. The explosion of wearable tech is largely due to the benefits these devices have to the health and well-being of the wearers.
Benefits of Wearables in Healthcare
Wearable technology has revolutionized how we work, exercise, and even rest. Wearable technology benefits both the patient and the practitioner. It gives physicians some deeper insight into the health of their patients and puts patients in control of their own health and treatment outcomes.
Empowers patients to improve their health
Wearables make it easier for patients to track their vital signs, sleep patterns, exercise habits, and other important health information. Owning this type of data puts patients in charge of their own health; the data also adds information that is not typically included in medical records, which gives doctors greater insight into the patient’s overall health.
Keep patients and practitioners in touch, even in between office visits
Wearable tech can help clinicians check patients’ health in between office visits. The devices can monitor certain conditions, such as diabetes and neuropathic pain, and send a report to the healthcare provider. Remote monitoring can reduce the number of follow-up appointments without sacrificing quality of care.
Aids people living with disabilities
Wearable technology helps those with disabilities manage certain activities without assistance. Shoes fitted with GPS technology can help legally blind people navigate, for example, and smart glasses help those with cerebral palsy use the internet to research or manage their condition.
Enables remote diagnosis, management, and treatment
Wearables can even help diagnose, manage and treat certain conditions. A new generation of customizable contact lenses can identify signs that a patient’s glaucoma is worsening, for example. Other wearable devices can deliver therapeutic electrical stimulation to relieve pain without the use of drugs.
The ability to diagnose, treat, and monitor patients with wearable technology is especially important in gastroenterology, as unlike other disorders, many GI problems often lack an obvious diagnosis or treatment. Many digestive issues share common symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. The underlying cause for the same disease may also be different from one person to the next. To complicate matters even further, the signs and symptoms of GI issues often wax and wane, sometimes over the course of years.
Current Wearable Tech for GI Patients
The Apple Watch is one of the most popular wearable devices on earth. This is largely because of its ability to track health and fitness metrics. Apple Watch also offers customizable health apps. The Activity app counts steps and displays calories burned, for example, while Workout tracks specific physical activities, such as walking or swimming, and calculates calories burned, distance covered, and other data. MyFitnessPal helps users keep track of calories, steps, exercises and more; users can scan barcodes on food packaging to track calorie intake.
Apple Watch users can also download apps that help them manage various GI conditions. MyGiHealth GI Symptom Tracker helps users track and identify symptoms, for example, and helps users learn ways to manage symptoms through diet, lifestyle, and medications.
Other manufacturers now offer wearable tech for GI patients. GI Logic’s AbStats is a wearable device that records bowel sounds and captures motor activity to monitor the function of various muscles located in different areas of the digestive tract.
IB-Stim reduces functional abdominal pain associated with IBS. This wearable device fits over the ear and sends gentle electrical impulses into cranial nerve bundles located in the ear. The electrical stimulation targets areas of the brain responsible for processing pain, thereby reducing IBS abdominal pain. Intended for use in patients aged 11 to 18 years, and for up to 180 hours of use per week for three consecutive weeks.
How to Recommend Wearable Tech to Patients
- Create a list of recommended technologies that solve GI problems
- Prioritize ease of use when creating the list – patients will not use technology if they do not understand how it works
- Introduce the idea of using wearable technology during office visits, and reinforce the message with signs, emails, and website content
- Explain the benefits of the technology, and address concerns and risks
- Create a handout detailing the instructions for the app of choice
- Offer the help of an administrator or tech pro in the setup of devices
- Enlist the help of family and caregivers
- Attract enthusiastic patients
Using wearable tech can substantially improve outcomes and quality of life for patients with GI conditions. This advanced technology can also help gastroenterologists provide fast, accurate diagnoses and deliver better care.
Lynn Hetzler was a Medical Assistant for 20 years, working in hospitals, universities and medical laboratories, and has been a leading writer in the medical field for another 20 years. She specializes in creating informative and engaging medical content for readers of all levels, from patients to researchers and everyone in between.