Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

Medical wearables and disposable sensors set for good years, says ABI

Steve Rogerson
September 12, 2017

The healthcare wearables market will grow from US$6.8bn this year to more than $10bn by 2022, according to ABI Research, which also predicted that the number of disposable connected medical sensors will exceed 3.5 million annually by 2022, growing at a CAGR of 30% from 2016 shipments.
The healthcare wearables market accounts for $6.8bn of the current $25bn wearables market. ABI forecasts that wearable healthcare, including healthcare devices, sports, fitness and wellness trackers will continue to dominate the wearables market and will exceed revenues of $10bn in 2022.
Healthcare wearables that monitor health conditions, physical performance and brain activity will move beyond smartwatches and fitness trackers; they will shrink in size and change in form factor type. Unlike today’s bulky health related devices, ultra-thin and ultra-soft sensors with software analytics will make wearables smarter and more useful.
“As an ultimate form factor of wearables, flexible body-worn sensors are quite an innovation for wearable adoption in healthcare, fitness and human-machine interface,” said Marina Lu, senior analyst at ABI Research. “These sensors can be integrated into a small patch and attached to human skin surface to track vital signs and other biometrics continuously and wirelessly. Some of the implementation examples include electronic tattoos and skin sweat sensors.”
The electronic tattoo (pictured) developed by Rotex performs many of the typical functions of smart watches and fitness trackers. Not only does it monitor health conditions in real time, it also provides a different means to control devices as an integral part of the IoT. The low cost and disposability of the electronic tattoos further the use cases and value appeal of wearable technology, especially for users who are price sensitive.
Replacing costly doctor visits and painful lab-based blood tests, non-invasive sweat sensors can measure a set of key biometrics from a single bead of sweat. A few companies are working to capture the sweat sensor market, such as Eccrine System, GraphWear Technologies and Kenzen.
These sensors require flexible components and start-up Royole is leading the way. Royole’s plan for mass production of flexible displays and sensors will accelerate the technology adoption for wearables and facilitate more aesthetically-pleasing wearable designs, smaller form factors and more immersive experiences.
“Health sensors are becoming increasingly commoditised, as they allow continuously physical monitoring with reduced manual intervention and at low cost,” said Lu. “While the miniaturised health sensors enable consumers to monitor health conditions by themselves and be aware of their own health care, they also extend to the enterprise market by delivering superior analytics for clinical and medical research. Once privacy and security concerns are addressed and standardisation in health communications protocols are put into place, the next-gen of wearable healthcare will be ushered in.”
The adoption of an emerging generation of disposable, connected sensors will be driven by the on-going development of remote patient monitoring applications, according to a separate report from ABI. Combined with use in hospitals and clinics, shipments of single-use sensors capable of transmitting patient data wirelessly, will exceed 3.5 million sensors annually by 2022, growing at a CAGR of 30% from 2016 shipments.
“Disposables are already a feature of healthcare provision around the globe and medical sensors will have to fit into that world,” said Jonathan Collins, research director at ABI Research. “Efforts already underway promise considerable progress over the next few years. Their potential to extend and simplify the benefits of remote patient monitoring will help drive the adoption of both,”
Disposable sensors, without embedded wireless transmitters are already commonplace in remote patient continuous glucose monitoring applications from Dexcom, Medtronic and others, but their potential reaches far beyond. Disposable connected sensors can support applications including medication tracking, temperature, heart rate and pulse oximetry as well as activity, movement and post-surgery orthopaedics monitoring that address a far larger user-base.
A host of companies ranging from established players including Philips Healthcare and Medtronic to well-backed ventures like Qualcomm Life and smaller start-ups such as GenTag and Proteus Digital Health are all investing in developing disposable sensors, but are taking varied approaches regarding sensor format and supporting technologies. In addition, various wireless protocols are under consideration for adoption in disposable smart health sensors including Bluetooth, NFC and proprietary offerings.
“What these and many other companies share is an understanding that healthcare workflows and reimbursement payments are already steeped in the broad use of disposable devices,” said Collins. “Between now and 2022 will be a key time for these vendors and others to address technical and ecosystem complexity around disposable sensor connectivity. It will also be the primary time for vendors to gain a foothold in the emerging market.”