Wearable devices are a modern marvel.
They teach users exactly how many calories you can burn by running up a flight of stairs, record sleep patterns down to the minute a neighbor’s safety light wakes you up, monitor your heart rate and alert you if anything gets out of whack, and even control your music during a workout.
And that’s not even touching on the medical wearables that patients use to manage chronic conditions.
We’re living in a time when so much information is available on our wrists or in our palms, and these devices are improving the lives and health of users all over the world.
And yet, they’re not perfect.
Which is why we surveyed over 450 U.S. patients who currently use medically-prescribed wearable devices to better understand their experiences.
By recognizing user pain points, healthcare providers who use and prescribe these devices can better prepare patients for incorporating medical wearables into their lives. Doing so will ultimately result in benefits such as efficient patient interactions and more consistent and better outcomes.
Benefits of wearable devices, according to patients
Let’s be very clear: even patients who have problems with their medical wearables still appreciate them.
When we asked patients what the biggest benefits of their wearable technology are, the number one response was that it gave them a better understanding of their own health.
We also interviewed several patients about their wearable devices, who also cited the benefit of better understanding their own health.
Nancy, a 63-year-old RN who has been using a FreeStyle Libre 14 day Flash Glucose Monitoring System to manage her uncontrolled Type 2 diabetes since 2019, had this to say:
“I am more aware of the ongoing trends of my blood glucose. With finger sticks, I am only able to see the immediate level. With [my device], I have the ability to follow a trend. I am able to follow how other variables in addition to food intake impact the reading (exercise, stress, illness).”
In addition to learning about general benefits of wearables, our survey asked patients how they felt about specific aspects of their devices.
While one in five patients said their device isn’t easy to use (more on that here), 86% agreed that their wearables do all of the following:
- Enable doctors to provide a higher quality of care
- Improve their health
- Improve their quality of life
Drawbacks of wearable devices, according to patients
To learn more about the pain points patients are experiencing with their wearables, we asked our survey respondents about the biggest drawbacks of their devices.
Cost is a major downside according to open-ended survey responses, and our interview participants echoed that sentiment as well.
Jill is a 62-year-old dental hygienist who has been using a Dexcom 6G glucose monitoring device to manage her Type 2 insulin-dependent diabetes for three years. When asked about the biggest drawback to her device, she said:
“Cost. It’s expensive. Insurance makes a big difference, but some [insurers] will not cover it. Also availability is a factor. Different insurance companies or policies determine where you can get your supply. I’ve had to order through a company out of [my state] in the past.”
Cost is, unfortunately, not something prescribers of wearable devices can control, but being aware of the financial burden you may be placing on patients by prescribing devices is important.
Talk to patients about their budgets and level of insurance coverage before walking out of the room, and have someone on staff who is knowledgeable about cost speak to patients if they express concerns.
In addition to the expense related to using medical devices, we identified three major pain points that prescribers can exercise some control over to improve:
- Security vulnerabilities
- User experience
- Tech support
Let’s explore how prescribers can address these three issues.
Data security and wearable technology
When asked about the biggest drawbacks of their devices, survey respondents cited security vulnerabilities at the top of the list.
While there is more protection afforded to devices that are designed to manage medical conditions (e.g., glucose monitors, blood pressure cuffs, sleep apnea machines), the use of medical technology outside of a healthcare practice still creates opportunities for the exposure of protected health information.
How can prescribers fix this?
By taking the time to vet the devices they prescribe to ensure the tech is secure. For most wearable devices, the onus is on developers to ensure the software has built-in protections against data loss, hacking, or other vulnerabilities. But whenever you start prescribing a new device, you should first meet with the developer to have them go over their data security measures in detail.
Medical wearable user experience
In our survey, we also asked patients who use devices that require manual data entry about their experiences. A majority (87%) told us that they have, at some point, entered inaccurate data.
We then asked these respondents about the consequences of recording inaccurate data and learned that over half (65%) had to contact their doctor’s office to correct the issue.
Finally, we asked what caused these patients to inaccurately record data, and 85% said it had to do with the usability of the medical device itself (e.g., the interface was confusing or it was unclear how to input data).
User experience is such a massive element of developing these devices, and patients need to be able to easily understand how to engage with these tools in order to get the most out of them.
And the less-than-stellar user experience is even more visible for patients who own both medically-prescribed wearables and commercial wearable devices such as a Fitbit or Apple Watch.
When comparing both types of devices, only 9% of respondents said their prescribed device performed better than their commercial device when it comes to ease of use. Comparatively, 43% preferred commercial devices over their medical ones in this same category.
According to our interviewee Jill, prescribers who don’t have a working knowledge of devices make everything harder for users:
“It would be great if doctors and their staff were more familiar with the system. For example, when I need a refill I usually have to explain what I need in detail and how much and when.”
How can prescribers fix this?
Again, this issue falls more squarely on the shoulders of developers, but it doesn’t mean providers escape responsibility entirely. By having a solid understanding of devices, including the hardware, software, and accessories, providers can more easily assist their patients when issues come up. Have staff members on your team go through any vendor-provided training related to device usage so they are well-versed in the requirements before you begin prescribing to patients.
Training and tech support
It stands to reason that patients who are dealing with confusing interfaces or who don’t understand how to interact with their devices won’t get the most out of them. Prescribers need to be fully aware of their patients’ comfort levels with technology in order to offer user training and support that is tailored to individual patients’ abilities and knowledge base.
The majority of survey respondents (58%) rated their personal technological literacy as “good,” and another 18% said they were “average.”
Here’s where considering the demographics of your patients and wearable device users is important.
Let’s take diabetes as an example. In 2020 the CDC reported that the percentage of adults with diabetes increased with age, especially in patients aged 65 or older. This means that the majority of patients who use wearables such as continuous glucose monitoring systems or insulin pumps to manage their diabetes fall within this age range.
We asked survey respondents what resources would be most helpful when learning to use a new device, and the top choice was a help desk.
How can prescribers fix this?
Fortunately, many wearable device companies already provide readily available help desk services, so prescribers need only keep that information handy to share with patients. It’s also important to ensure your team is providing a strong introduction to the device when prescribing to new patients.
Have a staff member who is familiar with the device (say, the same one who went through the vendor trainings) put together a package of resources to share with patients when you prescribe new wearable devices. Include links to vendor-provided training materials such as YouTube guides and help desk contact information as well as your own tips and tricks for taking full advantage of the wearable device.
The benefits of wearables are worth extra effort from prescribers
Yes, this is a lot of work to add to healthcare providers’ plates—especially when they’re already managing burnout and staffing issues. But since the goal has always been, and remains, to provide the very best quality of care to patients, making these efforts is important.
Almost half of providers rely on remote patient monitoring tools or wearable devices to some degree, which means this technology is already incredibly common. And with the rise in popularity of remote patient monitoring and digital health, it will only become more so.
So with that in mind, let’s revisit one very important stat from our survey: 86% of patients said their wearable medical devices have improved their actual quality of life.
Honestly, what more could we ask for?
Software Advice conducted this survey in January 2022. We used screening questions to narrow respondents down to 476 living in the U.S. with relevant medical experiences and knowledge, including diagnosed chronic conditions currently being treated or managed with medically prescribed wearable devices.
We reached out to real patients from representative age demographics to participate in written interviews for this report. We asked questions related to their medical conditions and experiences with using medical devices to manage them, including benefits, pain points, and areas for improvement.