healthcare wearable FEATURE
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Condition-specific patches and smart headgear for doctors are two promising areas.

Sure, the direct-to-consumer wearables market has had its bright spots (think Fitbit, for example). But, according to many industry analysts, one area that promises especially high growth is in healthcare—more specifically, two very different niches: condition-specific wearables and devices aimed at making medical professionals more efficient and productive. “We see a large opportunity in this space,” says Nicholas Pappageorge, tech industry analyst at CB Insights.

How come? Quite simply, it’s the level of inconvenience or pain--sometimes, literally--users face without these devices. In some cases, they address problems that involve substantial and often seemingly intractable health risks to patients; in others, practical practice management headaches for doctors, dentists, etc.

Smart patches take off

Take ZetrOZ Systems’ sam® wearable products. Sam® Sport, for example, has a proprietary ultrasound technology using low intensity, long-duration ultrasound. It not only provides pain relief, but also speeds up the healing process for various tendon, ligament or muscle injuries, according to Chief Commercial Officer Jim Molinaro. To that end, there’s a small device that snaps into a bandage-like patch on the skin. Ultrasound wave pulses, he says, “wake up the human body,” building up collagen, which accelerates healing, increasing oxygen levels and blood flow. Sensors monitor the frequency of pulses, as well as temperature, to make sure the device doesn’t heat up too much. Approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in 2013, it’s available by prescription in the U.S. and over the counter in Europe, Canada and Asia.

See also: Smarter shut-eye

Two-year-old Chrono Therapeutics focuses on delivering drugs through a smart patch on the skin, particularly for conditions in which it’s tricky for patients to give themselves the right dosage at the right time. Its first application targets smokers who want to quit the habit, making use of software that controls the level of medication transmitted. According to Jenny Hapgood, vice president of product management and marketing, smokers tend to crave nicotine soon after waking up in the morning. So, the device allows users to program to start delivering a dose about 90 minutes before awakening. Thus, smokers don’t experience significant cravings, because the technology has already started putting the drug into their systems.

There’s also a smart phone app, on which you can track your dosage and also find behavioral strategies for kicking the habit. In clinical trials now and into next year, the product, which is over the counter, should be available in 2018. The company also plans to apply the technology to such conditions as Parkinson’s and opioid cessation.

Hands-free productivity tools

Smart glasses are the wearable of choice for many companies targeting the productivity of medical practitioners. In 2012, Ian Shakil, who was working for a wearables company, and his friend Pelu Tran, a medical student at Stanford University, got a sneak peek at the then-under wraps Google Glass, when a Google pal let them try on a pair. According to Shakil, they immediately saw the potential for addressing a problem plaguing many physicians--spending hours a day typing data into electronic health records systems instead of interacting with patients. “It’s not great when you’re a patient and you’re always looking at the doctor’s back,” says Shakil. What if a doctor could collect, update and recall information in real-time on a pair of smart glasses, eliminating the need for constant data input? Shakil quit his job and Tran took a leave from medical school to form a company called Augmedix

How does the device work? Wearing the headgear, doctors can call up data by asking for it—say, requesting a patient’s cholesterol level—and a tiny screen appears in the corner of the device with the information. Also through a camera and microphone, conversations are transmitted to the company. There, a team of humans enters and updates data and creates a record in the doctor's EMR system.

See also: Startups embrace the Internet of Things

Similarly, Epson Moverio BT-200 smart glasses tap software from iDent Imaging to make it easier for dentists to use an oral CAD/CAM scanning machine for making crowns and the like. That equipment lets them create molds quickly by holding a wand-like device close to the patient’s teeth and getting a 3-D picture. But doing so requires constantly looking back at a monitor to make sure they’re capturing a full scan. Using the headgear, however, they can get a picture on their glasses, allowing them to keep their line of sight without turning around.

Investors also have started to take note of these trends. Augmedix, for example, has raised $40 million to date. “One of the biggest bottlenecks in the healthcare system is that we don’t have enough medical practitioners in this country, just when more and more people need these services,” says Kevin Spain, a partner at Emergence Capital. The upshot: Niche devices like those from Augmedix stand to do very nicely by allowing practitioners to be more productive.

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About Anne Field

Anne Field has covered entrepreneurship and small business for the New York Times and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.