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Gabe Evenson, occupational therapist with Blue Water Therapy in Fargo, demonstrates the Rapael Smart Glove, a high-tech rehab device. IMAGE: BLUE WATER THERAPY

A look at some ‘medical wearables’ that are transforming region’s health care

These are not your father’s activity bracelets. Heck, they’re not even your older sister’s activity bracelets.

Wearable medical devices have come so far, so fast, that health care professionals already are testing a device that will mimic a core function of an entire organ. The artificial pancreas will link a blood-sugar monitor with an insulin pump, creating a system that will deliver insulin automatically when blood-sugar levels require it.

We’re not there yet. But we’re not that far away, and therein lies a trend.

This story will describe a few of the ways in which Prairie Business-area providers are expanding their clinical use of wearable devices. Here’s why that matters:

“With the global wearable medical device market projected to reach $12.1 billion by 2021 from $5.3 billion in 2016, it’s clear that the growth of wearables will be driven in large part by medical applications,” Medical Product Outsourcing magazine reported earlier this year.

“The future of medical wearables is bright, and many big-name players are jumping on the bandwagon.”

Insulin pumps

The first insulin pump was a backpack that looks about the size and weight of a scuba tank. Though a marvel at the time, the device proved impractical, both because of its unwieldiness and because it required intravenous access, raising infection and blood-clot risks.

That was then. This is now:

“Today’s insulin pumps are really cool devices that are about the size of a pager,” said Dr. David Newman, a Sanford Health endocrinologist in Fargo.

“You have a sticker with a very, very small cannula,” a tiny steel needle or plastic tube that gets inserted just under the skin.

“You put it on your abdomen or your arm. It connects to the pump, and throughout the day, the pump gives you a small amount of insulin.”

These days, a separate patch can check your blood sugar every few minutes. Using that data (which gets sent wirelessly), the insulin pump system responds, although human intervention for challenging situations such as mealtime still is required.

Now in testing: a pump system with software so advanced that it will use the glucose data to make dosing decisions entirely on its own. That’s the artificial pancreas mentioned above.

“You have prototypes of exciting technologies in other fields of medicine,” Newman said.

“But in diabetes, the future is now.”

Bluetooth hearing aids

Remember the Walkman? Wikipedia does: “The original Walkman cassette player, released in 1979, changed music listening habits by allowing people to listen to their music while on the move.”

Now, replace the cassette player with a smart phone, and the headphones with Bluetooth hearing aids.

You’ll have a system that not only helps people who are hard of hearing hear phone calls and streaming videos, but also channels the sounds from those sources into both ears.

“Even people with normal hearing usually hear phone calls in one ear,” said Marin Almer, Essentia Health audiologist in Fargo. “To be able to hear in both ears is a great improvement.”

The devices serve as regular hearing aids as well. “But you can, if you choose, have just the audio source streamed directly to the aid, and not hear anything else around you,” Almer said.

“Of course, if you’re watching a movie with someone and you want to hear them, you can have both the audio source and the person you want to hear. But there is the ability to cut off other noise if need be.”

Smart Glove

Wear three different activity bands, and you’re likely to get three different step counts for your day.

But here’s something all three will deliver: motivation. Chances are, you’ll walk a lot more with a band than you will without.

That’s the idea behind the Rapael Smart Glove, a high-tech rehab device that’s so new, it’s not yet available in most of our region.

“I’m the regional representative for the manufacturer, and I’m still learning about it,” said Gabe Evenson, occupational therapist with Blue Water Therapy in Fargo.

The Smart Glove helps people regain hand function after disabling events such as a stroke. It’s equipped with sensors that can track hand and finger movements, plus interact, Wii-like, with therapy activities on a computer screen.

“In therapy, we do a lot of repetitive tasks, and it becomes really monotonous for patients,” Evenson said.

“With this device, you get a kind of a video-game component to get more involved. So you’re not just moving a block over a barrier, you’re squeezing a virtual orange or catching a virtual ball. I think it has huge potential.”

Sleep watch

Here’s the old way of preparing for a sleep study: Track your sleep habits on paper. Every time you go to bed, write it down. Write down when you get up, too.

Then take your sleep log to a sleep center.

Here’s the new way: Wear an ActiGraph or similar sleep band. The watch-like device will do all the rest.

The ActiGraph is a motion and light sensor. It records when and under what conditions the wearer sleeps -- information that sleep specialists use to prescribe treatments.

“The patient wears the device for two weeks, then comes back and we download the report,” said Dr. Praveen Jinnur, a pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist with Essentia Health in Fargo.

“With the paper logs, a few people would keep accurate track, but most people would forget. This is much better.”

Activity bands

OK, so maybe these are your father’s activity bracelets after all.

That technology has proven so useful, some 75 percent of Altru Health System’s wellness and weight-loss patients wind up wearing them, said Rachel Aure, Altru health and wellness coach Rachel Aure

“They’re just so helpful,” Aure said.

“And now, with connectivity, we have a hub that I can log into and I can see their information.

“It’s a very important health care tool. It gives you hard data, rather than just a guess.”

Altru dietitian Jennifer Haugen agreed. “We use it as a teaching tool,” Haugen said.

“We say, ‘This is what the data is telling us about you reaching your goals, and this is what we think would be a good next step.”