Wearable Technology for Nurses

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By ANA Career Center staff – June 2015

Wearable technologies have the potential to make a major difference in the lives of patients and in the way nurses and other health care providers do their jobs — but the future isn’t here yet. “As far as wearable tech is concerned in nursing, we’re on the precipice,” says Brittney Wilson, BSN, RN, a community manager at Next Wave Connect who also blogs about technology and nursing at The Nerdy Nurse. While surgeons and other doctors have incorporated devices such as Google Glass into routine care, nurses have some barriers to cross, Wilson says.

And while devices such as the iWatch, Fitbit, Jawbone and others provide new opportunities for people to manage their own health care, adoption is moving slowly. According to a PwC report on wearable technology, only one in five adults owns a wearable, and only one out of 10 uses it every day. Wearables in the workplace may face an even slower adoption rate. Still, nurses should be aware of the changes wearable technology may bring to their work in the coming years.

What’s Possible?

Wearable tech has a lot of promise in health care environments, says Bill Balderaz, president of Fathom Healthcare. “Imagine nurses getting alerts on an Apple Watch to say what patient receives what medication at what time,” he says, rather than having to look at a chart or a computer.

You might also receive a text when a patient is showing signs of infection but doesn’t yet feel sick, says Paul Wetter, chairman of the Society of Laparoendoscopic Surgeons. Or you could receive a text alerting you that a patient is approaching becoming anemic because her sensors are picking up signs of tachycardia.

Vascular surgeon David Gruener says he uses some wearable technologies, such as a GoPro camera or Google Glass, during some procedures as an educational tool, but acknowledges that patient confidentiality is a concern. He says his colleagues also commonly use Bluetooth earpieces, but he doesn’t use one himself. “They allow intraoperative consults with other providers but can distract from the task at hand that may need your full attention.”

These devices will be used differently depending on who supplies them, Wilson says. In a clinical setting, they will either belong to providers and be approved by the employer, or the employer will supply them. “As these devices get smarter and look more like phones, nurses will have to educate employers about how they’re not a distraction,” she says.

A Risk of Data Overload

Caregivers typically check a patient’s pulse and temperature every four to six hours, or if the patient complains of symptoms, Wetter says. “Imagine when pulse and temperature are being checked every second on millions of patients, allowing the supercomputer in their pockets to bring accurate, predictive results. Imagine your watch bringing you results in seconds. This is coming very soon.”

Automatically gathering these sorts of metrics throughout the day can keep nurses and other providers better informed about what’s going on, says endocrinologist Florence Comite, but the amount of data can be overwhelming. “In my estimation, the biggest challenge is that the data recorded by wearable tech lacks integrated interpretation. It will take time, education and experience to figure out how physicians and nurses can utilize and interpret isolated bits and bytes.”

Data privacy can also be an issue, Comite says. “When data is stored in the cloud, how secure is it? Questions about the accuracy and privacy of the health data that is collected, who owns it, what are the appropriate measures to protect it and how it should be used have yet to be answered.”

Wilson describes herself as a big nursing technology advocate and says all technology can empower nurses. She stresses, though, that it’s all in the delivery. When computers were introduced at the bedside, she says patients would ask her why she paid attention to the computer and not to them. “I always explained the benefit, such as ‘It’s important I document this information.’ ” When nurses use wearable technologies, they will need to incorporate it into their care while still making a connection with their patients.

Wearables for Nurses Themselves

Wearable technologies could even monitor caregivers as they work. With fatigue being a major concern for nurses, Balderaz says wearables could be programmed to create an alert when a provider is showing signs of fatigue. The device could test for fatigue though a game or app that measures reaction time or cognitive skills, or monitors biological data.

Wilson says that while nurses often say they walk miles a day, step-trackers can show them how far they’ve actually gone. It can be empowering, she says, for nurses to find out that they really have walked 5 miles on a shift.