Wearables: When "Too Good to Be True" Is No Longer True

07/22/2016 01:27 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2016

Kacey gets home from a half day at work, back throbbing, pain coursing through her back, radiating up her side, and down her left leg.

She’s on fire.

A package has arrived, and it’s the one she’s been waiting for. She unwraps it, ripping through the packaging. She reads through the instructions as fast as she can, strapping the device on her right leg, just below her knee, puts in the required settings, and waits. Soon, she starts to feel pulsing. Within 15 minutes the searing pain has quieted to a dull twinge. It’s still there, but like a voice underwater, removed.

She’s been suffering from chronic back pain for 15 years, and with new opioid regulations, plus feeling demonized for even using the opioids she desperately needs, her options were limited.

Until today. Quell gives Kacey her life back.

Growing up, I used to watch late night infomercials when I was supposed to be sleeping. I remember the amazing, life-altering, industry changing products that lit up the screen as someone yelled excitedly about how my life would be forever changed with 3 easy payments of $19.99. Even at 8 years old, I knew something was up. My grandma used to say, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” No doubt you were raised with the same beliefs.

It’s been a long time since those late nights, and now we’re basically living in the future. We have cars that drive themselves (well, mostly), we’ve got drones delivering packages to us, thermostats that know our temperature preferences, and algorithms that know what ads to show us based on our Facebook likes. And now, even our bodies are hooked up and trackable. Because now, we’ve got wearable technology. From the Apple Watch to the Fitbit, we’re tracking our own data.

With wearables poised to ship 170 million units in 2016, it may seem like a given that wearable technology will become a part of our daily lives.

On the other hand, these promises — a band that eliminates chronic pain! a watch that predicts seizures! a stick-on patch that tracks your vital signs! — sound eerily similar to the as-seen-on-tv promises that repeatedly let us down in years past.

But this is different. Because these devices do work.

So how can they convince the rest of us to trust them? How do they prove to us that their “too good to be true” offer really is that good?

There are several challenges every wearable tech company faces when bringing a new device to market. And no matter how good the technology — no matter how true the lofty promises are — if they don’t overcome these challenges, it’ll be impossible to succeed.

Challenge 1: No One Knows It Exists

Amy is a doctor in a small, rural hospital in North Dakota. Her patients are generally older, and poorer, suffering from chronic conditions. That means she sometimes sees the same patient several times a month for the same symptoms. If she had something that could give her data on these patients when they were discharged, without having to fill in the blanks every time they came in to see her, she could save herself time and give them better care.

It turns out there’s already a device that does exactly that — but she has no idea it exists.

The first hurdle that wearables have to overcome is getting the word out. Sure, you can post ads, tell everybody you know about this product and try to drum up interest, but how do you create the biggest community? Word of mouth.

Since we spend about 20% of our time online every day, and over 8 hours a day consuming media, that gives us a lot of opportunity to hear other people’s stories.

Getting the word out on social media platforms, like Facebook, or major online industry magazines, like Tech Crunch or Wired, is huge. Social media is the third most impactful marketing tool, behind only affiliate marketing and email.

But perhaps the most important factor in spreading the word is personal blogging. When your product works, and changes someone’s life, it’s going to get talked about.

This was the case for Quell. Quell is a wearable device that uses 100% drug-free neurotechnology to combat chronic pain through nerve stimulation.

To get the community talking about their product, Frank McGillin, the Senior VP & GM of Quell says:

Our number one job has been how do we get the word out that there’s new technology out there? Because there have been limited options for chronic pain sufferers, people think, ‘I have an illness, I take a pill.’ At first, we used Indiegogo as a launch platform because we knew it was a great way to meet a community of early adopters.

Once people are diagnosed with chronic pain, says McGillin, their immediate reaction is to search online for more information about how to deal with their illness. This has presented an incredible opportunity for Quell to get in front of the people that need their help.

Vital Connect faced a similar issue of visibility with their Health Patch® MD. Vital Connect’s Health Patch® MD is an adhesive patch that uses a biosensor to measure and track biometrics. This helps doctors like Amy give their patients more accurate care.

Dr. Nersi Nazari, Vital Connect’s Chairman and CEO, believes the world needs time to catch up to the technology:

New technology takes time to get out. We’ve done interviews, and think that 5 years from now all patients in the general ward will be monitored continuously. Research shows that this type of technology reduces code blues [when a patient needs resuscitation], and provides less interference for the patient. But, this technology is much like the internet. We knew it was going to be big but had to wait for everything to catch up. We’re trying to work with leaders in the medical industry and take the time getting to know them, and how they work, and how we can make this tech work best for them.

Challenge 2: No One Trusts It

In fact, the demographic for wearable medical technology is the perfect group to try what’s new due to an immediate need for better options.

Quell in particular had resounding reviews from the blog Wear, Tear, & Care, whose blog post from 2015 generated a lot of interest in the product, simply because people didn’t know it existed.

They’ve consistently been able to gain the community’s trust by reaching out and talking to their users, offering trials, and figuring out, “from the user experience standpoint, [how to] make it easy for the average person to get great results,” according to McGillin.

Empatica’s Embrace watch, in a slightly different method, has created trust by using this technology’s broad application in a wide range of functions. The Embrace watch was created to improve the lives of people with epilepsy by tracking biometrics and monitoring epileptic events — giving doctors deeper insight into the illness. Empatica CEO & Co-Founder Matteo Lai says, “Our technology is used with athletes, medical research, cardiac patient tracking, consumer electronics, and even emotional response tracking. It’s a very broad application.”

And all this data helps create a product that people know they can trust.

Challenge 3: No One Understands What It Does

Now, when we’re talking about neurotechnology, biometric sensors, and neurotransmission, things get very confusing, very quickly.

This misunderstanding is often a lack of information or a lack of clarification. When that happens, people will fill in their own knowledge gap by taking what they do know, and what seems to make sense. This can be disastrous for new companies, because now each person has created a unique storyline in their head. Those storylines tend to be something like, “I don’t understand how it works. Clearly that thing could kill me. I’m not using it — today is not the day I meet my maker!”

So what’s the point of having a technology that could save people’s lives if no one feels comfortable with how it works, and won’t try it?

Vital Connect is tackling this issue on its own platform. I asked Dr. Nazari if, in order to use the Health Patch®, everyone needed to be on a specific software platform. Meaning, does every hospital need to buy special software to make it useful? If that was the case, it could easily make the technology cost prohibitive.

He said that, “They have to be on the Vital Connect platform, but our platform has an open API so we can integrate it with other platforms. It’s similar to Amazon in that the API is out there for people to use. This expands the market and allows people the best possible care.” That means that if a hospital has an existing patient management platform, they can still pull data from the Health Patch® MD, making it easily accessible and affordable for hospitals.

Confronting these types of questions head on, and explaining it in easily understandable terms helps drive adoption and makes people feel safe enough to try the product.

Challenge 4: No One Follows Directions

Once people have the device, the final issue is making sure they use it correctly. Besides the fact that these are medical devices meant to seriously improve your life, people can be forgetful and willful when it comes to treatment adherence. The result is that they don’t always follow the prescriptions they’re given.

Embrace specifically set out to help young children and teens with epilepsy — historically the least compliant demographic for reasons ranging from a lack of parental involvement to general teenage defiance.

An article published by NCBI in 2008 shows that there is a “high prevelance of low adherence to treatment during adolescence.” Adherence can be as low as 10% for some chronic illnesses. And for teens undergoing outpatient cancer treatment, it was found that “teenagers may comply with treatment while in the hospital, but at home their desire to be ‘normal’ may encourage them to make compromises or skip taking their medications.”

In the same way, this could mean that a wearable device created to save a child’s life won’t get the chance because Logan didn’t feel like wearing his Embrace watch today, and took it off as soon as he got out of the car and Mom couldn’t see him anymore. That’s not good enough, and Embrace knows this.

They also knew this was going to be an obstacle they’d have to get through. So, they’ve made efforts to be a fashion item first, and a medical device second. Lai told me that they set out with the goal to be “the first medical device that could be sold in the Apple Store — but you wouldn’t be able to tell it was medical.”

And remember the “broad application” he mentioned earlier? This was an effort to help remove any stigma from the watch. He told me:

“If you have a product that’s only associated with a condition, you have low adherence. But if you’ve got something with a broad application, and you can’t definitively say what it’s being used for, then the stigma goes away.”

This means that compliance can be increased simply by reframing what the device is for, and getting people excited to wear it.

Wearable Technology is Here — If We Can Get People to Trust It

Wearables are increasingly becoming more integrated into our daily lives. Just a couple years ago I was tracking my own fitness with Suunto’s heart rate monitor, and just 3 years later we’re on the cusp of having similar biometric technology woven into our clothing.

It’s undeniable that wearable technology — specifically medical wearable technology — is in our future. As we go forward, the question we should be asking ourselves is no longer, “How can we create more cutting edge technology?”

Instead, like Quell, Empatica, and Vital Connect, we should be sifting through the human side of all that data and asking ourselves, “How can we create the best experience for this person that’s just trying to feel better?

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