Wearable med tech arrives at a plateau in Asian market as barriers to use increase

November 17, 2016 – 12:32 PM | By Omar Ford | No comments yet

By Haky Moon, Staff Writer

SINGAPORE – The wearable med-tech space saw a heated flurry of activity over the last year across Asia, but enthusiasm has cooled considerably as the obstacles that lie ahead for the sector become more apparent.

Panelists speaking during the Asia Pacific Medtech Forum 2016 in Singapore emphasized that wearables will have to influence consumer behavior if they are to stay relevant.

“If you look at wearables now, they are not medical-grade devices. It’s very difficult for hospitals and practitioners to use them. From a start up point of view, we need to step up to meet that need as a hospital,” said Michel Birnbaum, entrepreneur-in-residence at NTUitive Pte Ltd., an innovation and enterprise company owned by Nanyang Technological University. “We need to raise our game as well, to get to the point where people consider us medical-graded.”

“Fitbit measures heartbeats of human beings and it measures heartbeats in wooden desks as well,” added Birnbuam.

Medical-device wearables tend to target one of the four most prevalent chronic illnesses: congestive heart failure, diabetes, hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

On average, three months after wearing a wearable, most users typically stop wearing them.

“What do you do with the results? That’s the bigger question and if health tech addresses that, that will make them exponentially gain more traction,” said Zubin Daruwalla, director at Pricewaterhousecoopers.

Case in point is San Francisco.-based Fitbit Inc., which announced its third-quarter earnings on Nov 3.

This year, the company’s revenue was up 23 percent, but its stock plummeted more than 30 percent in 10 minutes due to a dismal outlook for the fourth quarter.

Fitbit, founded by James Park and Eric Friedman, is known for its products of the same name, which are activity trackers, wireless-enabled wearable technology devices that measure data such as the number of steps walked, heart rate, quality of sleep, steps climbed and other personal metrics.

In the U.S., Fitbit devices are used in diabetes and weight management programs by two of the largest U.S. health insurers. Its corporate wellness program, where companies give employees Fitbit activity trackers to encourage healthier lifestyles, generates less than 10 percent of revenue at present, but is growing in volume.

In spite of working with the largest U.S. health insurers, sales of Fitbit has grown a meager two to five percent this year, compared to last year’s 94 percent growth.

Currently, wearable devices are mostly being developed for two main market segments. These are largely for medical and fitness purposes. The former is specific to patients and the latter enjoys a wider user base.

89 percent of wearable products are wrist-worn, in a form of smartwatches, and used mainly for monitoring heart rate, sleep quality and activity ambient temperature. The rest are most commonly worn on the ears, eyes and clothing.

With the push to make these wearables ‘medical-grade’, companies like Fitbit will face regulatory hurdles, having to gain approvals by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration through rigorous clinical trials.

“Another barrier would be regulations but that will depend on the market,” said Birnbaum.

Despite dampened outlooks, a report by Pricewaterhousecoopers, ‘The Digital healthcare Leap’, published in August, predicts there will be an increasing influx of wearable solutions in emerging markets that will support demand for monitoring and tracking to be integrated into daily life.

Daruwalla, also an advisor for health tech start ups, pointed out that although wearables have hit a plateau, it hasn’t hindered innovation. He sees start ups emerging to address issues.

“From what I have observed, companies that I would say are gaining traction are ones that collate that data and then take that extra step, and do something with it,” said Daruwalla.

The current level of technology in wearables will have to be addressed, but the medical wearables market in Asia is expected to grow due to several factors.

These are a combination of a rise in health care spending by the government and individuals and a huge jump in diabetes and heart disease incidence.

The World Health Organization estimated that the number of annual cardiovascular events in China will increase by more than 50 percent by 2030. The number of people with diabetes in India is now at 67 million.

Imedia Research and the International Data Corp. predict this will push wearable device sales upwards to 13 million units in Japan by 2017 and a whopping 4.7 billion units in China by 2020.

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