Everywhere you turn these days you see new research and products related to wearable technology. Some have been successful, others have R&D issues forcing them back to the drawing board. The important question: what are the implications for healthcare, and how do we manage our own health?

Opportunities NB (ONB) spoke with Dr. Erik Scheme, Innovation Research Chair in Medical Devices and Technology at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), to learn more.

ONB: You are the NB Innovation Research Chair in Medical Devices and Technology by the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation (NBIF). Where does wearable tech fit into this?

New Brunswick Healthcare WearablesDr. Scheme: My focus isn’t specifically on wearable technology. My background is in biological signal processing and human-machine interfaces, whether it’s been speech recognition, biometrics, or neural control of prosthetics. The tie-in with wearable tech falls in naturally because wearables are all about interfacing with a person.

We have to be careful though, because as the commercial market for wearable tech grows, the more the term gets associated with fitness trackers and intelligent glasses or watches. There is a big difference between this class of consumer device and true medical technology that has to undergo rigorous regulatory approval before it can be used to diagnose, monitor, or treat medical conditions.

Your mandate is to position New Brunswick as a world leader in the discovery, innovation and commercialization of medical devices and technologies. Tell us more about that and how your research is going.

Yes, that’s the long-term plan. We’re already seeing—from our successes in the IT sector—that companies are being attracted to New Brunswick because of our innovative ideas and dedication of our people. Couple that with the leading medical and bioscience research being done across the province and an international reputation for rehabilitation engineering, and you’ve got the building blocks for a sustainable economic benefit. The key is building a framework that will attract more companies and keep them in New Brunswick, and that will support small businesses and entrepreneurs that want to build medical technology companies here.

We already have some excellent support agencies in the province, on the entrepreneurial side and on the health and biosciences side, which are going above and beyond to help make that a reality.

The wearable industry, in general, is expected to increase steadily over the coming years. What do you see on the medical side?

I think they’re going to go hand-in-hand, in some sense. We’re starting to see companies and startups focusing on the intersection between healthcare and technology. Not only are there exciting new technologies emerging, but there are very viable opportunities to innovate using existing technologies to create efficiencies and reduce healthcare costs. There are also a number of wearable sensor technologies and mobile medical devices that I believe will make health research more accessible. Eventually, we’re going to start seeing a real global demand to democratize healthcare.

Do you see the work you and others are doing as something that could completely disrupt the medical industry and how people are treated?

We’d like to think so. Certainly, there is a health informatics movement that is already changing the culture around health data, and I’m excited about using medical devices to provide clinicians with objective, contextual data. It’s important to identify where our collective strengths are though, and really drill down in those areas of expertise. If you look around the world, the real game changers and disrupters are coming from places where they’ve specialized to the extreme. It would be naïve to say we’re going to be the best in something as vast as medical devices, but if we focus in deep on our core strengths, I think we can carve out a niche. We know that our strengths, at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBME), are in rehabilitation, mobility, and monitoring, but we’re just one piece of the puzzle.

Right now there is a lot of talk around wearable devices for everything from looking inside veins, to measuring hydration, to monitoring sleep behaviour, to monitoring heart rates and physical activity. What areas will you and your team look at?

At the IBME we have core strengths in rehabilitation, mobility and monitoring, so I obviously have a lot of interest in those areas. My role as Chair, though, is to work with industry to identify new opportunities for innovation and to help them develop competitive advantage through R&D. It’s really hard for small medical device companies to bring a product to market. It’s even harder to divert resources away from that to take a risk on the next great idea. Continued innovation is particularly crucial in the MedTech industry though; you can’t survive on incremental improvements to a product line. I’d like to help New Brunswick companies by establishing an ecosystem that will help them commercialize that first product while allowing them to offset some of the risk associated with R&D of the next big idea.

In the end, I’m flexible in terms of the research we do, as long as it’s good science and helps build the New Brunswick economy. If we don’t have the subject matter expert that a particular company needs, I’ll help find one.

Where do you think the future of wearables will lead in terms of employers, insurers and even the legal systems leveraging data that track and monitor vital statistics?

Having contextual data recorded unobtrusively in the home and on the job will provide caregivers with greater insight. Mobile and wearable devices will allow patients to diagnose basic conditions in the home, hopefully alleviating some of the burdens on the healthcare system. Access to these data for high-level analytics will be invaluable for understanding regional and global health trends and will help validate and improve different therapies.

I think we’re going to see some interesting questions about the rights to health data though. Consider the benefits of having objective, in situ, health data; patients will be able to better self-manage chronic conditions or push themselves during recovery. On the other hand, will employers be able to use these data to argue for faster return to work times, or for insurers to deny claims?

Do you see a cluster building in New Brunswick that will focus on the various components of the ecosystem for wearable technology? 

We want to develop a cluster around what our core competencies are as a province. We’re going to bring together all stakeholders in the medical technologies sector, and hopefully identify one core area that we can focus on. I expect that wearable tech will have a role to play though, simply because there is so much room for innovation at the intersection of healthcare, mobile and digital technologies, and IT.

Written by Heather MacLean