What can we do with pulse-transit-time calculations from wearables?

August 30, 2019 // By Andrew Burt
No longer simply the province of step counting and tracking calories burned, health wearables such as blood-monitoring wrist devices can empower people to more closely manage chronic conditions.

In the U.S., cardiovascular disease is the costliest. It’s been the leading cause of death for Americans since 1920. What’s more, related medical as well as indirect costs (such as from lost productivity) that totaled $555 billion in 2016 are expected to hit $1.1 trillion by 2035, according to the American Heart Association. Given this dire prognosis, it’s an opportune time to herald the emergence of wearable technologies that provide continuous, real-time monitoring of vital signs.

The future of health wearables will be about much more than step counting and the tracking of calories burned. Designed with sophisticated sensors, advanced algorithms, and powerful yet efficient processors, devices are already available that monitor parameters such as heart rate, blood-oxygen levels, sleep quality, and stress levels. Research and work is underway to bring devices to market for non-invasive detection or screening of such conditions as diabetes, breast cancer, atrial fibrillation, and UV exposure.

By providing real-time health data to patients—and in a format that’s be easily shareable with healthcare professionals—wearable devices can empower people to more closely manage chronic conditions and be more proactive about addressing previously undetected health issues (Fig. 1). According to Global Industry Analysts, Inc., at-home healthcare monitoring reduced hospital visits by 35% in 2017.

1) Wearable devices that monitor vital signs such as heart rate
are enabling users to be more proactive about managing their
health and well-being.

The idea behind many of these devices is to assess early indicators of certain conditions. To illustrate this point, let’s consider blood pressure—an important indicator of cardiovascular health and a vital sign that must be managed. The American Heart Association recommends that people with high blood pressure engage in home monitoring as a way to evaluate whether their treatments are effective. Plenty of home-monitoring tools are already available. Most of these are cuff-based and, as such, require dedicated time sitting down to capture the measurement. They also don’t provide a continuous reading.

For greater user convenience, wrist-based devices that monitor blood pressure continuously and in a non-invasive manner are starting to emerge. For example, Omron Healthcare’s HeartGuide, the first wearable blood-pressure monitor, has the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). HeartGuide is essentially a smart watch and uses the oscillometric cuff method, which is the standard for medical-grade personal blood pressure measurement. An accompanying app provides insight on readings and allows for sharing with the user’s doctor.

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