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From health selfies to invisible blood pressure measurement, this gear suggests the future of telehealth and digital medicine.
Brian CooleyEditor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and the Publicis HealthFront. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
ExpertiseAutomotive technology, smart home, digital health.Credentials
Some of the most interesting health tech trends at the outset of 2021 point to a future that merges healthcare with consumer electronics, two trends that have barely touched so far. At CES 2021, CNET's Senior VP of Content & Strategy Lindsey Turrentine asked if they can provide better healthcare than in the doctor's office when merged. Here are some of the most interesting health tech products that may bring us to that point.
Health tech that knows you're having an issue is just a tree falling in the forest unless there's a connection to the healthcare system. Omron has taken an important step in that direction with its VitalSight connected blood-pressure monitoring system. It's not a slick watch, nor does it take your readings passively, but when you do take a reading it automatically logs it into your electronic medical record and can notify your care provider if you need attention. Vitalsight is being made available through physicians.
Omron is also the maker of the HeartGuide blood pressure watch, a pioneering clinical quality blood pressure meter in smartwatch form that was launched at CES in 2019. The company says HeartGuide is not yet compatible with VitalSight's automatic reporting system but it seems clear that will be in the offing.
Across the span of consumer electronics, people over 55 get short shrift, often seen as caricatures of frailty or a market that doesn't look sexy in a startup's funding presentation. But the over-55 market composes one of health tech's biggest white spaces. "There needs to be much more focus on developing great technology for seniors," says Jenniifer Kent, Senior Director at Parks Associates.
Nobi seems to have heard that. Its stylish lamp sensor lights a room to prevent falls when it detects human motion. It can tell the difference between a person getting up and someone just turning over in bed. When that algorithm detects a person has fallen, Nobi can send out an alert to summon help. Absent such emergencies, the sensor can emit tones of light that complement the time of day, which could help keep you on a healthy diurnal cycle. It also learns patterns of behavior to get better at detecting anomalies as well as nudging you to get to an appointment or take medication. The downside is that Nobi will be priced at a lofty $2,499 plus a $19 monthly monitoring fee.
CVS Health launched its Symphony system at CES 2021. Symphony's array of in-home and wearable devices create a mesh network of sensors to detect falls, monitor motion and oversee room temperature and air quality while providing an emergency alert service when needed. All of this runs from a voice-activated hub. The system's algorithms promise to learn when conditions change from normal as part of its alert logic. Symphony kits start at $150 with monthly monitoring fees starting at $30.
There's a cautionary tale about continuous monitoring, however: A study of the accuracy of Apple Watch heart arrhythmia detection found that "a clinically actionable cardiovascular diagnosis of interest was established in only ... 6 of 41 (15%) patients who received an explicit alert." Healthcare providers remain skeptical of automatic alerts from any form of consumer electronics until they're proven to be of quality and don't add noise or false alarm to an already strained healthcare system.
Valencell offers sensors that can measure blood pressure indirectly, embedded in tech products you might wear for other, more enjoyable reasons, eliminating the need for a dedicated blood pressure and heart rhythm monitoring device. It works via photoplethysmography, measuring the nature of light reflected back from skin as blood courses variably beneath it. I love the idea of our earbuds or headphones becoming a vast fleet of passive blood pressure monitors, but Valencell says industry momentum is leaning more toward using its tech in fingertip or wrist wearables, with such retail products arriving in 2022.
If telehealth is to continue to flourish, it will need to locate basic doctor's diagnostic tools into the home.
HD Medical introduced HealthyU at CES 2021, a home device that senses a seven-lead electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) without wires. It can also sense heart and lung sound and rate, blood oxygen saturation, body temperature and blood pressure. The HealthyU is pending FDA clearance, which will tell us everything about its accuracy, but the product bundles a remarkable number of signals in a single handheld device.
ICON.AI introduced a health sensing device with Amazon Alexa built in, perhaps a first in this category. This hybrid device looks like an Amazon Echo Show 8 smart speaker with a lift-out sensor pad docked in the top that takes a basket of six cardiovascular measurements via your fingertips. When it's not checking your vitals, it can function like a normal smart speaker with a screen, including showing YouTube videos, some of which are sure to raise your blood pressure.
The Flo device is expected on the market by late 2021. It'll be priced under $100 and will offer plenty of reasons to pay: It can treat allergies to tree pollen, grass, ragweed and dust without drowsiness, contraindications from other drugs, concerns about pregnancy or jobs that require strict drug-free compliance.
While the "smart pill" sector is a tricky one, this deal seems to endorse the idea that important medications should self-report when they were taken which can then be mapped against personal health device signals to extrapolate the effect of those medications. It's not happening tomorrow, but it's a tantalizing new prospect.
Until this year, the intersection of digital wellness and consumer electronics was largely populated with a lot of fitness bands and watches that threw off elective signals that were easy to ignore. But the 2020's are shaping up to be an era of compelling home health that addresses serious questions with signals that will be hard for patients or providers to dismiss.
Update: Feb. 2: Clarified the readiness of Valencell's core sensor technology versus the timeline for finished goods that are expected to embed it in 2022.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.