Exploring biowearables for digital healthcare

Published May 24, 2022, 1:34 PM

by Jonathan Castillo

The other day I was speaking to an elderly woman. She was having trouble with her hearing aid, complaining how expensive it was and at the same time, battery life drains at an incredulous pace. It made me think of the recent TWS buds I’m currently reviewing. These device makers could totally develop a much affordable hearing aid with more reliable batteries, better microphone, and feature-rich to help make lives easier for some people. Of course, the market for that is slim compared to the wider audience of earbuds, smartphones, and smartwatches. (This isn’t to throw shade at device makers, some of them actually invest in healthcare, developing medical equipment such as digital X-rays, ultrasounds, and such.) 

But there are technologies being developed specifically to help people who are suffering from diseases and pains. And as these technologies mature and continue to develop, the more they can be incorporated into smartphones and smartwatches. 

Abbott is a technology company specializing in medical devices to help people manage and monitor their diabetes, heart conditions, chronic pain, and testing blood donations for a healthy supply. And right now, they are exploring the potential of biowearable technology and how it could benefit people.

Dr. Kenneth Lee is the Medical Affairs Director for Asia-Pacific of Abbott and has answered a couple of questions we sent to him.

What are biowearables? What is the technology behind them?

Bio-wearables are sensor-enabled monitoring devices that are in contact with a person’s skin and can track parameters such as temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, as well as levels of glucose, ketones and other key analytes. Depending on what is being tracked, the technology differs. Data collected by the sensors is transmitted to a reader or a mobile phone for display and analysis using Bluetooth or NFC standards. Because these technologies are now cloud-enabled, the data collected by a biowearable device can be remotely accessed by a doctor, enabling faster treatment decisions. The data from biowearables provides a ‘window’ into the body, giving an individual the ability to witness the impact of diet, exercise, medication and lifestyle choices, in real-time. An individual can also choose to share health data with designated family members or friends, enabling better caregiving. For example, Abbott’s glucose-sensing platform for people with diabetes, FreeStyle Libre, has revolutionized diabetes monitoring for nearly 4 million individuals across 50 countries, including the Philippines.      

What is the importance of biowearables in the future of personal health and diabetes care in Asia-Pacific?

Biowearables offer real-time data for patients, doctors and caregivers to understand and address their condition as early as possible. Asia is the diabetes capital of the world – according to the World Health Organization, 227 million people live with Type 2 diabetes in the Asia-Pacific region alone, with half of them undiagnosed and unaware of the long-term complications of the said condition. Ergo, there is a distinct need for those managing diabetes to track glucose levels as quickly and accurately as possible to prevent complications brought by fluctuating sugar. 

Additionally, biowearables are readily accessible and available for patients to use. Traditionally, patients would need to go to clinics or hospitals just to get routine or particular blood tests such as glucose and ketones. Through this technology, any patient can have access to their data, and these can be used as basis for doctors to create personalized prescriptions that are responsive to the changes in their body. 

This technology also opens more doors for hospitals to accommodate emergencies or severe cases for immediate treatment and action. Caregivers, or individuals assigned to take care of their loved ones, can fully use this technology to practice data-driven and responsive personal care. Biowearables can also aid patients on their road to recovery. It helps them see the results of their lifestyle changes, giving them more reasons to either continue, adjust, or try another way to improve our health in the long run. 

In extreme events such as the pandemic, cloud-enabled biowearables, with ability to transmit data remotely, can help avoid trips to the clinic or hospital, thereby minimizing chances of exposure for people living with diabetes.   

What are the advantages of biowearables for Filipinos living with diabetes? How important are they to improve their quality of life?

In a 2020 study commissioned by Abbott among urban Filipinos living with diabetes, we found out that 63% of Filipinos living with diabetes look to eliminate finger sticks in their diabetes management devices. This is unsurprising since constantly pricking one’s fingers, in some cases 6-8 times a day, for years on end, to check one’s glucose levels can be cumbersome, painful, and carries with it a social stigma

Diabetes is complex but managing it shouldn’t be. With biowearables such as Abbott’s FreeStyle Libre, Filipinos living with diabetes can just quickly take a painless one second scan using their reader over a sensor to monitor their glucose levels, anytime and anywhere. This ease-of-use gives the consumers the capability to create personalized, digitalized, and proactive healthcare solutions to manage their diabetes.

Biowearables also show the importance of data-driven solutions in healthcare. Many healthcare organizations now rely on smart and data-driven processes to create solutions that are responsive to the specific needs of a patient. It will not be surprising if this trend will be evident in the Philippines, the landscape has been welcoming of digital innovations such as telemedicine.  This leads us to the point about accessibility. Biowearables can make healthcare more accessible and efficient since they may use digital technologies which can help patients check their condition and consult with their physicians remotely and quickly without compromising accuracy. Sensors measuring one’s ketones and evenlactate levels will become available as technology evolves. These advantages can help Filipinos living with diabetes proactively manage their condition. By checking their glucose in real-time, they can see the impact of their diet or activity on their glucose levels, and quickly make any necessary adjustments. 

Are biowearables for diabetes patients already available in the Philippines? What is next for diabetes management in the biowearables space? 

The good news is that biowearables are available in the Philippines. Apart from the smartwatches you see commercially, continuous glucose monitoring systems, like the Abbott FreeStyle Libre System, are also available in selected leading Mercury drugstore branches, Watsons, Southstar Drug and online via Lazada and Shopee. The Abbott FreeStyle Libre System can accurately monitor a patient’s glucose levels in real-time without having to routinely prick their fingers. Doctors can also access their patients’ FreeStyle Libre data via the cloud- enabled LibreView. Real-time treatment decisions are the cornerstone of effective diabetes management, which is seeing increased adoption in the Philippines. 

We foresee that diabetes management will be more data-driven due to the emergence of continuous glucose monitoring technologies. With the CGM market expected to grow further among all patients impacted by diabetes, the technology can become more accessible for the general population. 

Consumer biowearables will also evolve to monitor additional facets of health such as cardiovascular function, ketones, and metabolic health. These offer unique opportunities for disease management to become more responsive to the changing needs of patients,

Abbott has also partnered with several companies to develop connected technologies to address unmet patient needs in glucose management. We want to make diabetes management a proactive collaboration between the patient and doctor through biowearables to monitor their glucose levels. We are keen on using all available health technologies to empower Filipinos living with diabetes to make healthier choices.

What is next for Abbott’s biowearables business in diabetes care? Do you have plans to introduce new technologies in the future?

Abbott has been at the forefront of biowearables’ development, and we foresee a great need for connected technologies across diabetes and other conditions.. We now live in an age where everyone has an app for almost everything in life, it will not be surprising if this becomes the standard for biowearables too. 

We hope to bring the next generation of continuous glucose monitoring technologies to the Philippines soon.  There is increasing penetration of personal health technologies in the country.  Filipinos impacted by diabetes are also expected to embrace innovative technologies that will make their lives easier. Abbott is in the business of empowering Filipinos living with diabetes to make healthier choices through our digital tech. 

Do you see smartphones becoming the new healthcare devices for Filipinos living with diabetes?

With a projected 91.5 million Filipinos with at least one smartphone by 2025, the Philippines is one of the biggest countries in terms of smartphone adoption. Smartphones are well on the way to becoming a personalized and intelligent healthcare accessory. 

In fact, we have seen apps in smartphones that are focused on health-related conditions and behaviors  –  mental health apps have shown tremendous growth. Smartphones have become the modern-day Swiss army knife, and will be deeply integrated with healthcare devices.

In the future, smartphones will be the diabetes management partners of Filipinos. This digital solution can empower patients with diabetes to have better control over their health. Users of biowearables can track relevant diabetes data on their smartphones using an app, unobtrusively and with no hassles.

Biowearables help patients listen to their body better. This helps patients to address their health concerns through actionable solutions. How do biowearables help create better treatment decisions for patients?

Biowearables provide patients with relevant information in real-time to help them adjust medications and lifestyle decisions. By having access to this kind of information, a customized patient-centered approach can be developed wherein there is a collaborative work between patients and diabetes care providers toward the goals of achieving optimal clinical outcomes for individuals living with diabetes

Do you think Filipinos living with diabetes are ready to embrace this technology? What could be some possible hindrances/challenges?

Access is one key factor that can potentially restrain Filipinos with diabetes from incorporating biowearables into their management as the initial cost may seem higher than traditional tracking methods. But this should be viewed from a cost-benefit analysis, where the benefits of data-centricity and removal of finger pricks outweigh costs. 

Equally important is weighing the intended outcomes of the technology – for instance, a study with individuals with diabetes and using Abbott’s FreeStyle Libre system saw on average a HbA1c drop from 8.5% to 7.7% over six months, helping to bring the HbA1c closer to the American Diabetes Association’s recommended 7% value.

Continuous glucose monitoring systems have proven to be an effective way to help manage diabetes by providing real-time data so that the patient can seamlessly share it with healthcare providers for less hassle, more insights, and better outcomes. 

While digital healthcare solutions hold great promise, all stakeholders must be knowledgeable about the technology’s benefits through creating access and improving product literacy.