Design Engineers Weigh in On the Future of Diagnostic Wearables

The world of diagnostic wearables is rapidly evolving, redefining entire fields of medical monitoring. The rapid growth of these applications is creating exciting opportunities, but it is also bringing a multitude of design challenges to the forefront.

The latest Molex survey, commissioned along with Avnet and called “Diagnostic Wearables: The Future of Medical Monitoring,” gives a glimpse of how this new industry segment is unfolding. We queried 600 design engineers and engineering managers around the globe and found a strong sense of optimism, especially among startups and tech companies. Respondents broadly agreed that the technology is ready and barriers to innovation can be overcome—it’s just a matter of time.

Wearables See Increased Interest

Wearable technology is progressing on multiple fronts, with use cases in the consumer market, telehealth and in clinical settings. Many applications have already found notable success, including:

  • Fitness, e.g., activity tracking, performance monitoring and heart rate tracking
  • Wellness, e.g., sleep tracking, sun exposure and weight monitoring
  • Medical, e.g., vital sign monitoring, glucose monitoring and remote EEG/ECG/EMG

The entire world was given an education on the value of these and other wearables during the COVID-19 pandemic. Home quarantine, at-home testing, remote monitoring, and virtual consultations forced people to think about healthcare in different ways, with rewritten boundaries.

Indeed, 80% of surveyed design professional perceive a change in attitudes in the wake of the pandemic. Sixty-one percent see medical device companies putting more effort into home-based care products—and roughly half saw increased interest in these products from patients, caregivers and other medical professionals.

Tech Advocates vs. Insurance Skeptics

It should come as no surprise that the strongest advocates for new tech are those who benefit most from the comfort and convenience of wearable solutions. Of those surveyed, 61 percent saw patients and consumers as important stakeholders driving demand, followed by over 40 percent who see first-line personnel—doctors, technicians, and home care providers—as key supporters of new wearable products.

On the other hand, design professionals saw those in charge of paying for the technology—namely, insurance companies—as the stakeholder most likely to stand in the way of progress.

This makes sense, since those concerned with reducing risk will be skeptical of new methods and changes to the status quo. More surprising was that an almost equal portion (roughly 30 percent) also described insurance companies as advocates, perhaps suggesting some movement towards acceptance in the industry.

Consumer Markets Are a Promising Opportunity

While insurance reimbursement decides the fate of many products, some technologies aim to drive value in the consumer arena. For instance, self-administration of diagnostics, wellness tracking, and other home-based healthcare hardware are now available over the counter.

The design profession sees this consumer space as an important growth area. Half or more of respondents foresee obesity control, breath-based disease testing, sleep monitoring, posture detection, and reproductive health applications have the strongest potential as purely consumer products.

On the other hand, there are also sizable pluralities that perceive medical supervision as a prerequisite for future healthcare devices in all these categories.

Many consumer solutions leverage already existing platforms, like smartphones or watches, while some introduce a new hardware platform, like FitBit, which could expand sensing capability modularly over time.

While consumer solutions spur advancement in terms of ease of use, public acceptance, and cost-effective platforms, from a medical point of view, many see unreliable data and privacy issues as barriers to formal, provider-directed uses.

Who Are the Innovators?

Given the strong demand for wearable diagnostics, who is best positioned to take advantage of the opportunity? Will large engineering firms have a better chance, or will the startup ecosystem prove more agile in bringing emerging technologies to market? Alternatively, might we see new ideas break through from academic research or the medical practice?

Roughly half of those surveyed saw tech companies and medical device startups as the future leaders in this space, but there is an important caveat. Nearly two-thirds of respondents reported that collaboration across groups is critical for innovation. This suggests a strong need for partnership between non-traditional healthcare players (e.g., tech companies and startups) and those with established expertise.

One example of the benefits is the collaboration between startup SOTECH Health and Phillips-Medisize, a Molex company. Working together with our customer, we leveraged research from The University of Texas at Dallas to create a breath analyzer that detects COVID. This partnership demonstrates the value of bringing together tech companies, medical device manufacturing experts, and academic research to innovate across critical healthcare domains.

Most Common Challenges

The Molex survey also delved into what designers perceive as the most problematic engineering issues around wearables.

Making all components smaller and less obtrusive is the key to good wearable design. For miniaturization to work practically, reliable and compact sensors, connectors, and other hardware were the top three necessities cited among designers in the survey.

Power management and battery life, more so than form factor or materials, ranked high as challenging technical design issues. This may be because the power consumption of a device will dictate most other design decisions, from size and shape to connectivity and antennas.

Beyond the usual cost-versus-quality tradeoff, other common concerns included satisfying the usability expectations for patients, designing for a home environment and certified biocompatible materials.

Technical Maturity and Systemic Barriers

In general, design engineering now has an array of technologies (materials, sensors, data communication, and power management) that are mature enough to deploy for a long list of health conditions. The survey results show that engineers have confidence in the current technology.

The barrier of widespread adoption seems to lie in placing these capabilities in a single package that all stakeholders will find acceptable. Tradeoffs between these groups and industry attachment to the clinical-centered status quo remain the biggest challenges in the wearable diagnostics marketplace.

But overall, the survey paints a positive picture. As the applications for wearable diagnostics continue to expand—and as more stakeholders become comfortable with using these technologies—this marketplace is ripe with opportunities for innovative engineering.

And Molex collaborates closely with innovative customers to deliver breakthrough healthcare solutions and services that transform patient experiences to improve lives.