Since ancient times, humans have utilized technology to reach their goals and objectives with the hope of improving their lives. Meanwhile, this science of craft has had a profound impact on the trajectory of human existence. From the first time man sparked embers into fire or crafted primitive tools from the simplest of resources, the evolutionary wheel began to spin. This evolution has propelled the human race into a present day where it seems our crafters are more astute and savvier than ever before. As wearable technology is introduced to the world of medicine, the field of physical therapy is on the brink of a new- and very exciting- frontier.

The Future of Wearable Technology

When the average consumer thinks of wearable technology, they might picture an Apple Watch or perhaps even a FitBit; in fact, they would not be incorrect. To date, fitness trackers and smartwatches have dominated the wearable tech market. As shipments spiked by almost 150% from 2014 to 2015, activity trackers, heart rate monitors, and life loggers- enjoyed a prosperous introduction to the mass market.

However, those of us viewing these advancements through a comprehensive lens understand that wearable tech has the capacity to tremendously impact the world of medicine. While the wearable tech market currently centers around sports and fitness, over the next few years, healthcare is expected to take the lead. As wearable technology continues to evolve, healthcare will inevitably experience a dramatic shift in care, recovery, and rehabilitation.

Expect Unprecedented Advancements

When it comes to high-tech inventions and futuristic technology, we may be on the brink of something sensational. Worell, a company with a distinct vision for the evolution of wearables, explored the future of physical therapy as it relates to wearable technology. The industrial design and product development firm tells the fictitious story of “Annabelle”- their imaginary patient of the future- and illustrates how she, or any patient, could potentially benefit from these revolutionary breakthroughs.

In the aforementioned example, Worrell envisions a radically inventive, full body smart suit. Providing postural strength while limiting motion, this smart suit has the power to significantly reduce Annabelle’s healing time while its integrated software allows for a truly personalized experience.

While a smart suit such as this has yet to develop beyond an imagined prototype, Worrell envisions wearable technology that will move “ beyond providing basic behavioral feedback to body-altering technology that can rapidly heal a patient by providing smarter therapies, while seamlessly linking the patient to a larger connected-care community.”

As the industry develops, physical therapists can expect technological products to improve patients’ general health by detecting early warning signs using advanced sensors, signal processing, and pattern recognition. According to Aditya Kaul, research director for market intelligence firm Tractica, wearables will soon be taken much more seriously.

“Advanced sensor technology, miniaturization of hardware, and smart artificial intelligence algorithms will help bring wearables into the forefront of the fight against chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer,” says Kaul in an interview with The Motley Fool. He predicts the development of smartwatches that do more than display your text messages….he believes smartwatches will someday incorporate technology that can actually warn its wearers of a serious medical issue- such as a stroke or heart attack- days in advance.

Wearable Technology Today

While we may still be years from the introduction of a full body smart suit or precautionary smartwatches, wearable technology is already changing the world of physical therapy for the better.

When asked about the already emerging benefits of wearable tech, Jeff Sallade, Owner of Three Dimensional Physical Therapy in Medford, NJ believes that wearable technology is already having an impact through two distinct advantages: improved patient accountability and increased recovery time.

While physical therapists can prescribe an at-home regimen, wearable technology allows patients to prove it. “There is built-in accountability for our patients,” explains Sallade. “Wearable technology will give us information on what they are doing outside of the clinic-meaning are they continuing to just sit around and become weaker or are they taking control of their health and doing something about it by becoming more active.”

By being able to see real data about patient progress and holding them accountable outside of office visits, physical therapists have already seen dramatic increases in patient recovery time. The component of competition adds another level of inspiration to the equation. Seeing objective data can incentivize patients to be more active while providing long-term health benefits that may not have been otherwise realized.

The Future of Physical Therapy

As advancements in medical technology take the industry by storm, some may wonder what the future holds for the physical therapy profession. Will there will come a time where physical therapists are no longer needed? Meghan Klunk, a Director for Clemson Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, strongly disagrees.

In her outpatient clinic, she views wearable tech as a “useful complement to therapy,” but she believes no advancement in the wearable tech industry could ever replace hands-on therapy sessions. “Physical therapy is so individualized, so tactile,” she adds noting that proper posture, form, and corrections will always require face-to-face sessions with an experienced professional.

As demand for wearable tech increases in physical therapy applications, Klunk agrees that the technology will continue to advance while becoming more affordable as manufacturers compete within the market. Physical therapists will enjoy higher productivity levels, improved patient response, and improved data monitoring capabilities while patients will benefit from shortened recovery periods after an injury. As these technologies within the healthcare community become more prevalent and more affordable, the profession will undoubtedly change…but only for the better.