What Role Could Wearable Technology Play in the Future of Orthopedic Care?

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Wearable tech is here, and rapidly improving. How can orthopedic professionals take advantage of the valuable data it collects?

With the rise of Fitbits and the Apple Watch, wearables have become a mainstay in the tech marketplace. Among their many uses is collecting reliable data on the user’s health — even for those who did not purchase their wearable device with personal fitness in mind.

As the market for wearables continues to grow, so does the number of practical applications of this technology for healthcare providers. Orthopedic professionals in particular are poised to reap the benefits of these versatile devices, which can contribute to more accurate and comprehensive patient histories and provide real-time insights into patients’ lifestyles. As you might expect, this influx of data could have significant implications for orthopedic care.

THE UNTAPPED POTENTIAL OF HEALTH DATA

Existing wearable technology can already provide orthopedic specialists with a wealth of insights into their patients’ lifestyles before, during, and after treatment. Even relatively simple programs like the standard iPhone Health app can record a person’s current location, speed, and distance traveled with great accuracy. Other devices such as Fitbits can show steps taken in a given day or week.

The potential applications of these relatively simple datasets are profound. If a patient is recovering from, say, knee replacement surgery, a wearable device can provide some indication of the patient’s progress. The more steps taken in a single day, the more likely the patient is responding positively to their rehabilitation plan and successfully adjusting to life after the procedure.

Health-specific wearables offer even more possibilities. These gadgets can reliably track and compare information ranging from current pulse to calories burned. Such information can help healthcare providers construct comprehensive digital health profiles that doctors and surgeons can consult at a moment’s notice. In other words, they give clinicians an objective, holistic overview of the patient’s recovery to supplement the patient’s own assessment of their progress.

ACCEPTING THE LIMITATIONS OF WEARABLE DATA COLLECTION

Of course, there are some limits to the capabilities of medical wearables in orthopedics, at least for the moment. While more reliable than patient-reported outcome measures, pure distance tracking ignores subtleties of flexion and extension that are central to rehabilitating injuries such as ACL tears and Achilles tendonitis.

With that in mind, orthopedic specialists need to acknowledge the ways in which wearables sometimes fall short. Orthopedic specialists can begin by asking themselves what traditional outcome measurements can be best assessed with the data gathered by wearables. Walking goals and general physical activity are some straightforward examples, and both could be easily integrated into a patient’s profile.

Orthopedic providers should also consider whether to develop new recovery metrics that reflect the capabilities of today’s wearable technology. Doctors can begin by pairing insights derived from wearable data with more traditional criteria. By focusing on distance-centric measurements, for example, in combination with patient-reported pain metrics, orthopedic specialists can account for the technological blind spots that a sole focus on wearable-derived data would entail.

A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES

As wearable technology continues to advance, the potential of these devices seems nearly limitless. Sensors placed on joints, or even within implants, could show precise improvements in mobility. By linking joint-specific sensors to wearables, patients would have the ability to pinpoint the moments when they are feeling the most pain and determine in real time exactly what motions are causing it.

Standardized data collection could also enable providers to compare their patients’ injuries with a broader set of patients experiencing similar conditions — and modify treatment accordingly. In fact, devices such as the Fitbit Charge 2 can already compare a person’s fitness data against others in the same age and gender groups. By homing in on orthopedic-specific criteria, wearables could give doctors a new level of insight into what works, what doesn’t, and which benchmarks should be hit at which times.

The key to making these aspirations a reality, of course, is productive collaboration between the makers of these devices and those who wish to use them. Not all data is equal when it comes to assessing patient recovery — but an open dialogue between orthopedic experts and those in the wearable tech industry could lead to sophisticated innovations that ultimately facilitate better patient care.

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