How Wearable Devices Could Get Doctors' Stamp of Approval

Step 1: actually work. 

Wearables have been hot in Silicon Valley. They refer to little computers and sensors you wear on your body instead of devices you keep on your desk or in your pocket. 

The great hope for many wearables is that they can capture data about what you're doing and use it to generate what are invariably called "insights" into your behavior and wellbeing. 

Perhaps you've seen the many wristbands that are now for sale: the Jawbone Up, Fitbit Flex, Basis Health Tracker, Withings Pulse, Samsung Gear Fit, and a herd of other tiny devices. In the future, there will be shirts and skin patches and computers you swallow, too. 

And yet, as any honest observer will admit: these devices are only good at a few things and only sometimes. For example, they can count steps really well. But for actual medical use, they are just not up to the gold standards, and probably not even the silver or bronze, either. There have been major problems with manufacturing the devices, validating their output, and using the information they generate. 

Yesterday, Young Sohn, chief strategy officer at Samsung, the world's largest smartphone maker, revealed the company's vision for digital health. "We are here to outline the single greatest opportunity of our generation," Sohn said, "to better understand our physical well-being, to give a voice to what is happening in our bodies."

And even he admitted on-stage that when it comes to wearable devices, he usually wears one "for two weeks" and then tosses it for not being "good enough for me." 

"I become my own guinea pig. I wear anything wearable out there," Sohn explained later in a press conference. "And there are really a lot of issues. We are in a really early stage. They are not very comfortable. I have even worn a patch and a day later, I was very uncomfortable, so I took it off. And there are battery issues, data exchange issues, and also accuracy issues."

"A lot of startup companies are a few people with interesting ideas," he concluded. "If you look at a 30 person startup—like Pebble [a watchmaker]—28 people are trying to make a watch, and two people are working on sensors and algorithms. I want to flip that equation." 

So, Samsung is trying to create an open ecosystem that uses common hardware (like the for-developers-only Simband pictured below) and a common data platform to simplify the creation of new devices. 

To me, perhaps the most intriguing part of the Samsung plan is the creation of a joint research center with the University of California, San Francisco, the Center for Digital Health Innovation, helmed by Michael Blum, a medical doctor who is the assistant vice chancellor of infomatics at UCSF. 

This center would work to validate the sensors and algorithms produced within the Samsung ecosystem. Validation here has a pretty specific meaning that derives from regulatory thinking about medical devices. That is to say, when Blum says "validation," he has a rigorous protocol in mind, not just a rough sense that a device works. 

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