Wearing Your Spine Health on Your Sleeve

Can "wearables" update your spine specialist instantly on your recovery?

What if you could update your spine surgeon on your recovery without even saying a word? Wearables, which are devices you wear on your body that track certain types of health care information, instantly update spine specialists on how their patients are doing. Ralph Mobbs, MD, MS, FRACS, a spinal neurosurgeon at the Prince of Wales Private and Public Hospitals in Sydney, Australia, shares his thoughts on how wearables might shape the future of real-time health care.

wearable technologyQ: What are “wearable technologies?”

Dr. Mobbs: Wearable technologies in health care are smart electronic devices that can be worn on the body as an accessory, such as a watch, t-shirt, or Fitbit.

The device monitors health care data, including activity levels, how well you’re walking and moving, and body temperature—and it can be used after spine surgery to track the success of your recovery. The device’s data is sent in real time to your spine surgeon or other health care provider, so he or she has immediate access to how you’re doing.

Q: How did you get interested in wearable technologies?

Dr. Mobbs: I became interested in wearables following a chance meeting 10 years ago with an engineer who was one of my patients. He could barely walk and required surgery. We talked about how to monitor patient activities in an objective way using data. This chance meeting planted the seed of how patients could benefit from activity monitors. A few years later, the first Fitbit was released and opened so many more opportunities to use data to track recovery progress.

Q: What’s your research with wearables?

Dr. Mobbs: My team completed the first publication in the literature looking at objective real-time monitoring of patients before and after spinal surgery. We used a simple device—a clip-on activity tracker linked to a phone—to monitor patient outcomes.

We found that these devices helped patients monitor their activity and rehab goals, while allowing the spine surgeon to assess how the patients were doing. It’s a win-win for both doctor and patient.

Q: How will patients benefit from wearables?

Dr. Mobbs: Wearables will help patients get the best recovery outcomes. Regardless if you’re seeing a physical therapist, personal trainer, psychiatrist, physician, or spine surgeon to manage your back or neck pain, there is room for a wearable to monitor outcomes and effectiveness of a particular treatment.

Wearables do more than just monitor activity levels, too. Imagine if we could remotely monitor your temperature, heart rate, wound recovery—that’s true real-time health care. What a huge difference this stuff would make!

Q: What is the future of wearable technologies in spine?

Dr. Mobbs: The future is super exciting. Wearables will have a major role in the initial assessment of a patient: how they walk, detection of neurological or orthopaedic problems; the list goes on. Wearables will have an even bigger role in spine surgery recovery by monitoring patient progress and activity post-surgery, detecting problems early in the rehab phase, providing motivation, and setting of goals for the patient.

Overall, it’s not just about what type of spine surgery we do, or what we implant into patients—it’s big picture stuff. Wearables will help patients before spine surgery, after spine surgery, and in the long-term management of their pain, regardless if they need a spinal fusion, hip replacement, or physical therapy session after an episode of simple back pain.

With any health problem, there are many unpredictable outcomes that all behave in a predictable way. The use of wearables will collect data to provide this predictable information, so we can improve the way we treat patients with back and neck pain.

Updated on: 04/17/17
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