Big Data and Wearable Health Monitors: Harnessing the Benefits and Overcoming Challenges

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According to researchers at IBM Watson, “The average person is likely to generate more than 1 million gigabytes of health-related data in their lifetime.” The widespread use of wearable health monitors – or any device worn on the body that collects data for clinical research, patient health monitoring, and fitness and wellness tracking – has amassed vast stores of health information. The challenge for the health care industry today is developing a seamless data-driven approach that brings maximum benefit and minimizes risk.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the University of Illinois at Chicago Health Informatics and Health Information Management program. 

How data scientists can help health care organizations maximize the benefits of wearable tech-derived information.

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A Wealth of Health Data

Market research firm IDTechEx has projected the wearable technology market will reach $100 billion by 2023. Generally speaking, E-marketer estimates of wearables’ penetration among adult users is projected to grow from 18.1% in 2017 to 25.3% in 2023.

In 2019, it’s projected that 3.8 million American children and teens will own a wearable device. 38% of wearable users will be between the ages of 25 and 34, and 13.2% of users will be between 55 and 64. It’s also projected that just over half of the adult population (50.4%) will routinely wear a smartwatch. By 2020, smart eyewear is projected to constitute 40% of the total wearables market revenue and 10% of wearable device shipments. By 2021, 16% of all wearable devices will be smartwatches, and 30% of smartwatch unit shipments will be smartphones designed specifically for children. By 2022, 28.9 million millennials will own a wearable device, and 25.5 million will use a wearable at least once a month.

Wearables on the Body

Wearables can be worn from head to toe. For instance, smart helmets, glasses, and headphones can be used with a person’s head, eyes, and ears. Smart clothing, sports apparel, and smart footwear can cover the torso and extremities. In some cases, people can implant devices in their body.

Applications for Wearables

Wearables serve two main purposes: To track a specific condition, and to help users maintain good health. Wearables can collect a host of data to execute these roles. Some of the collectable data include steps taken, food and water intake, calories burned, sleep movement, and breathing.

The Challenges of Big Data

The growing adoption of wearables among health care consumers has created a new problem: How to realize the full potential of data.

One of the biggest data challenges concerns outsourced versus in-house analytics. Companies offering analytical solutions are relieving hospitals of the need to analyze data themselves. Health care organizations must realize that analytics should be embedded into every aspect of service and recognize the need for dedicated individuals familiar with the hospital’s ins and outs.

Another challenge is integration. A Mediacomp Systems survey of health care IT professionals and physicians found that 43% struggle to integrate patient data into their workflows. To realize the benefits of data, organizations need to build out technological infrastructure and update existing processes.

A third challenge revolves around data costs. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, “Breaches in the U.S. health care field cost $6.2 billion each year.” For benefits to outweigh costs, health care organizations must treat data as a strategic asset, rather than a liability or expense.

Sharing data poses an additional problem. Health care organizations consider patient data a proprietary asset. To move forward, industry pros should recognize the benefits of sharing data and resources with other organizations. These benefits include designing new research methods, discovering alternatives to clinical trials, and speeding up medical innovations.

Finally, there is the matter of skepticism. Health care professionals are ware of information that’s not collected by them and of gadgets that aren’t FDA-approved. However, the industry’s shift toward reducing costs and reaching underserved populations is helping health care pros focus on improving outcomes.

The Need for More Data Scientists

In one year, a single patient’s electronic medical record (EMR) and imaging data can research 80 megabytes. This treasure trove of information calls for qualified professionals to store, manage, and analyze the data.

There are numerous careers in health informatics for data scientists to consider – not to mention a need. Currently, there’s approximately 6,000 data scientists, 180 of whom work in health care. Unfortunately, that’s not enough for the roughly 6,000 hospitals and 400 academic medical centers (AMCs) in the U.S., per an article published by NEJM Catalyst. The reasons for the lack of data scientists in health care include the expense involved in storing and generating data, health care organizations substituting data scientist roles with CMOs or health information officers, and a reluctance to change.

How Health Care Organizations Must Adapt

In order for health care to fully embrace data science, health care leadership teams must understand the difference between data storage and data analyst roles. Smaller hospitals must also be willing to share analytics results with other small hospitals to, according to an NEJM Catalyst article, “increase their analytics options, reduce adoption costs, and enable their own in-house analytics.” Finally, care organizations must hire qualified data scientists to manage the data.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 13% growth in health information technician jobs between 2016 and 2026. Also taking into account the projected growth of the wearables market, there’s no better time than now for graduates to pursue careers in health informatics.