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Body Language: Streaming Health Data

The wearables market has been gathering momentum like a tsunami, cascading over the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and thrilling industry analysts. Predictions of demand and market value for the wearables market show solid growth across the next decade.

And one of the biggest markets for newer, better wearables is in healthcare.

For now, the majority of devices are fitness-oriented, but there is no shortage of demand and developer interest in doubling down on shifting from wearables to implantables that interact with virtually every biological system in the human body.

As amazing as this Dawn of the Cyborgs sound, bringing our very bodies into the Internet of Things has plenty of drawbacks.

Where healthcare information is concerned, 2015 was the Year of the Data Breach, with more than 112 million individual health records affected. That means virtually one out of every three Americans had their personal health data compromised over the course of last year.

The question is, will the proliferation of wearables make the problem worse?

There is much reason to think so.

Realizing the full potential of health and fitness wearables means not just recording biometrics and steps into a personal account in a mobile app—it requires users (or wearers) to share that data with their healthcare providers.

Tapping into the fast-growing analytical power of health centers, patients can have doctors backed by teams of informatics professionals turn health history charts into big data warehouses, documenting baseline readings for anything wearable devices can measure. Real-time monitoring can alert patients and their doctors simultaneously about any deviation from these baselines—an early-warning system for heart attacks, strokes, or even the onset of infection or minor illness.

Add in another layer of connectivity, and physicians can coordinate with pharmacies to automatically order the necessary prescription, or else combine this early-warning system with the now ubiquitous GPS connectivity of smart devices to have paramedics ordered straight to the location of a wearer showing signs of a health threat.

And if such wearables are indeed to become as commonplace as smartphones (there are more phones than people in the U.S.), the principles of this passive health-monitoring system can magnify to track and respond to population health crises as a whole.

Real-time feeds will judge the nation’s eating habits, exercise patterns, stress levels, and especially the spread of illness. From seasonal bouts of flu to the next major outbreak, this IoT web of health data will give officials, reporters, and citizens the earliest and most accurate updates possible to respond.

The rub, of course, is that taking full advantage of all these possibilities means ramping up already severe vulnerabilities significantly.

The connectivity among all these separate actors, monitoring and responding to the live feed of biometric data, means multiplying the number of access points to what could be private, sensitive information. Disclosing your data bank of wearable-generated stats to a personal physician, for example, links your wearable device to your health chart. Thanks to the shift to digital in the healthcare sector, that means your Electronic Health Record (EHR) compiles all of your personal identifiers—name, age, address, Social Security, insurance information, associated credit cards—into one convenient location.

Building a virtual chain among all the interested parties—doctor, pharmacy, Department of Health and Human Services, perhaps the FBI in the interest of catching a bioweapons attack, and certainly the insurance company so they can better adjust premiums to reflect how much you exercise and eat right—means data thieves have their pick of access point to steal your entire identity.

Disrupting this chain only reduces the efficacy and value of tracking and sharing data at all.

Security concerns are already raining on the parade of IoT enthusiasts, but the value (and vulnerability) of data that could be unlocked by the next generations of wearable health devices change the game entirely.


Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native writing on trends in health, education, and global affairs. He studied conflict resolution and international relations and has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism. He is currently working as an independent analytical consultant. He can be reached on Twitter @EdgarTwilson.