With vendors such as Apple, Fitbit, Microsoft and Nike bringing wearable technologies to market, industry analysts are predicting explosive growth for these devices over the next few years-and not just with consumers. Physicians are seeing the devices as a way to better manage patient care. Yet the question remains: Will the use of this technology on a greater scale result in improved health outcomes, particularly for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease?

While there's little evidence to date that wearable health and fitness tracking technology alone can change behaviors and improve outcomes-especially for those patients that need it most-sensors that continuously measure variables such as body temperature, pulse rate, blood pressure, cardiac activity, blood sugar, blood oxygen and sleep patterns are being adopted en masse. And depending on how quickly wearable data collection and data analysis matures, the devices may soon be helping a lot more people stay healthy.

By 2020 monitoring from smart wearable devices may help save 1.3 million lives thanks to a reduction in mortality from cardiovascular diseases and obesity, according to Soreon Research, which tracks wearable healthcare systems. In fact, Soreon estimates that patients with chronic conditions will help drive the wearables market from $2 billion currently to $41 billion by 2020.

"There's an amazing number of sensors that are going to be medically applicable and they're coming quickly now-some of them are already available to consumers," says Eric Topol, M.D., chief academic officer of Scripps Health in San Diego and a practicing cardiologist. Whether monitoring blood pressure or blood sugar levels or heart rates, wearable sensors have the capability to serve as "medical dashboards," helping physicians track patients' vital signs and overall health conditions, using that data to see patterns and warning signs of illness, Topol asserts.

For instance, in January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first set of mobile medical apps allowing diabetics to automatically and securely share data from a continuous glucose monitor with caregivers in real-time via an Apple mobile device. The apps receive real-time data from a small, wire-like sensor inserted just under the skin that provides a steady stream of information about glucose levels and transmits it to a Web-based storage location, where it can then be downloaded.

However, Tom Giannulli, M.D., chief medical information officer for cloud-based medical office software and services vendor Kareo, says healthcare organizations are still in the "discovery phase" when it comes to determining the utility and value of wearable technology for managing the health of their patients. "There may be some really important medical information coming from a routinely worn device like an Apple Watch," Giannulli asserts, but providers will only be able to gain new insights over a "long-term, large data basis."

For more of Greg Slabodkin's March HDM feature story on emerging mobile technologies, click here.

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