Innovation rules global corporations today. Executives spew words like “Blue Ocean strategy” and “market disruptors” at the same rate as the churning of start-up companies in Silicon Valley.

As society continues to place greater emphasis on creativity and innovation, the healthcare sector seems to be lagging behind. Incumbent pharmaceutical companies appear incapable of producing breakthrough discoveries that excite the public.

For a sector as vital as healthcare, the wheel of progress does not stop for the indolent. Innovation is no longer limited to traditional pharmaceutical companies. In fact, tech giants such as Apple and Google are actively developing cutting edge technology to break into the healthcare market.

Non-invasive sensor technology

Earlier in April, it was reported that Apple was planning to develop a non-invasive glucose monitoring device that can help diabetic patients painlessly keep track of their blood glucose level.

Glucose monitoring without skin pricking is hailed as the “holy grail” in diabetic management, and it is sensible that the field is very financially rewarding. In fact, the World Health Organisation reported that global diabetes prevalence has doubled from 4.7% in 1980 to 8.5% in 2014, putting diabetes as the primary healthcare burden of many countries.

At around the same time, Alphabet (the parent company of Google) subsidiary Verily announced a new product named Verily Study Watch that offers unprecedented convenience to researchers to collect data in a continuous manner. The wearable product is described as capable of “… scalable collection of rich and complex dataset across clinical and observational studies”.

The Study Watch mainly targets research efforts in cardiovascular and movement disorders where it can collect an impressive array of physiological parameters, such as ECG, heart rate, electrodermal activity and inertial movement. It is a medical device expected to be a welcoming addition to the latest research tools for clinical trials worldwide.

Pitfalls and concerns

All medical devices and clinical research gadgets ultimately have to obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The rigour of FDA's safety and efficacy assessments is unprecedented, as it should be. This is because the agency has the responsibility of preventing rogue or outright harmful innovation from reaching the market.

The bad experience with Theranos, a rogue company that promised to revolutionise blood screening, still lingers fresh in the minds of many. The company claimed its remarkable Edison machine, named after Thomas Edison, could run dozens of biochemistry tests on a small amount of blood taken from finger pricks instead of the traditional venous blood.

Unfortunately, the company turned out to be a fraud. Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, went from “America’s Richest Self-Made Woman” to a “net worth of nothing”.

As with other electronic gadgets, digital security of the Apple wearable glucose meter and Verily Study Watch will be another vital component that should be scrutinised by healthcare experts. Patient privacy and confidentiality ought to be prioritised before convenience.

Healthcare professionals should maintain a healthy scepticism towards these new devices. Comparisons with the gold-standard measurements or tests should always be made. Otherwise, there is the risk of making the wrong clinical judgement. MIMS

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