How Body Sensors Could Catalyse A $1 Trillion Healthcare Opportunity

The global healthcare business is very large, very slow and suffers from a chronic lack of patient data

Body Sensors: Today 

Body sensors are one of the most interesting parts of the wearables market.

When viewed collectively, the current generation of body sensor technologies can already measure a wide range of parameters:

  • Stride length, distance, step count, cadence and speed;
  • Heart rate, heart rate variability, heart rate recovery, respiration rate, skin temperature, skin moisture levels, breathing rate, breathing volume, activity intensity;
  • Body temperature;
  • Calories burned, distance travelled;
  • Sleep quality, sleep patterns;
  • Wearer’s brainwaves -  can be used to control electronic devices/services by thought;
  • Back posture: sitting position, chest and shoulders;
  • Force of impact to the head (used in contact sports);
  • Exposure to the sun (UV measurement);
  • Biomechanical data collected while running (e.g. L/R pressure etc.);
  • Altitude and rate of ascent/descent;
  • Location (3D);
  • Motion parameters including speed and acceleration;
  • Repetitions of specific physical activities (e.g. sit ups, dips, press ups).

When looking at a long-term market trend like wearable technology, it is very important to decouple the reality of today’s technology – replete with a long list of issues and shortcomings – from what that technology might be capable of in, say, 30 years - which is about how long it took the mobile communications industry to grow from nothing into the $trillion behemoth it is today.

Therefore, when we look at the above list of parameters than can be measured by sensor technology today we should ask what might become possible in the future?

Body Sensors: Future

There is an obvious omission from the above list: there is presently no way to measure aspects of blood chemistry, or other parameters that can only measured by sensor technology that reside inside the body.  

If it became possible to perform a real time analysis of certain aspects of blood chemistry then we think that this could unlock a USD 1 trillion healthcare opportunity.

This line of thinking leads us to one conclusion:  we foresee a future generation of body sensors that are located inside the body.

Until in-body sensors arrive, body sensor technology will be mainly restricted to the personal health, fitness and sports markets. While these markets are by no means small, they will never represent a USD 1 trillion opportunity.

A $ 1 Trillion Market Opportunity

It is interesting to think about the size of the opportunity that an ‘in-body’ sensor might precipitate:

We conservatively estimate that healthcare costs in the world’s top-20 economies come to a total of USD 3.8 trillion per year, or about 7% of GDP.

The GDP of the 20 largest economies in the world in 2012 was USD 57.5 trillion – about 85% of the worldwide total.

Because all of these countries have mature healthcare infrastructure (provided by a mixture of public and private systems) then we can estimate that the total cost of providing healthcare for these top-20 economies in 2012 would have been in the region of USD 57.5 trillion x 7% = USD 4.0 trillion.

Bearing in mind that these costs to not include the total economic impact of disease (for instance the impact of sick people being out of the workforce, either temporarily through illness or permanently through early death), then it is easy to see how the top 10 diseases could be costing the global economy in the region of USD 10 trillion – or about 16% of total output.

If an advanced form of body sensor could be developed that would have the ability to track in real time a number of key ‘early warning’ physiological parameters for these top 10 common diseases – so that they could be identified and treated earlier, then it might be possible to reduce these costs by 10% - or by USD 1 trillion a year.

Although very simple, this analysis indicates to us that a future form of highly advanced body sensor could catalyse a total market opportunity of about USD 1 trillion.

To put this into perspective, USD 1 trillion is about the same size as the advertising, telecoms, television, film, music, book, magazine and newspaper industries – combined.

This is clearly a truly huge market opportunity.

How Might an 'In-body' Sensor Work?

At this stage there is no evidence that such an ‘in-body’ sensor could be produced, that it could be produced at a viable cost, or even that people would find it acceptable to carry such devices inside their bodies.

But in 1980, when the first mobile phones were entering the market there was no evidence that it would one day be possible to produce a mobile phone that could be manufactured for less than USD 10.00 and was the size of a small matchbox – which is the case today. Or that it would be possible to produce a smart mobile phone that could play HD movies, and could access the internet using a wireless connection at a speed of 10Mbits/s (of course, the internet did not exist in 1980).

As we said earlier in this report it is important to take a long term view when thinking about the wearable technology market.

We believe that, in time, scientists and engineers will find a way to create such a sensor device and that the benefits will be utterly compelling – and more than sufficient to overcome the objections.

Different sensors could perhaps be developed for different users at different age bands – sensors for nutritional analysis, sensors for specific diseases and general purpose sensors.

These devices might contain a mixture of semiconductor electronics and organic electronics and a wireless connection would allow data to be transferred to a device which would reside outside the body, for instance a smartphone. The sensor could be recharged using a wireless charging system with the charger unit residing beside the wearer’s bed or even integrated into the mattress.

As to how the sensor would be inserted into the body, this could be by means of a small operation. 

Impact on Healthcare Industry

Putting to one side the challenges that would be encountered in developing and commercialising the technology, it is interesting to consider the impact that such a device could have on the worldwide healthcare industry:

  • Medical research would be transformed: Medical researchers operating in the private and public sectors could have access to a vast database of continually updated non-personal medical data on 100s of millions or even billions of individuals. Researchers would be able to correlate trends in measured parameters with other user data, for instance, age, eating behaviour, location, socio-economic status etc.
  • Average life expectancy would increase: The ability to ‘listen’ for the warning signs of serious illnesses or diseases would mean that the average lifespan would be increased;
  • GDP would increase: If the average lifespan on the workforce was increased by, say, 5 years then this would imply a substantial increase in overall economic activity;
  • Insurance costs would fall: Insurers could gain access to more accurate data then they would be better able to price policies for the needs of individual users. There are, however, obvious issues here including whether someone who had a genetic condition could gain access to affordable healthcare. Government intervention might be required in such situations;
  • Healthcare costs would be reduced: Because the treatment costs for a disease that is identified at an early stage are typically lower than if the disease is identified at a late stage we would expect total healthcare costs to fall;
  • The accuracy of medical diagnoses would be improved: Medical practitioners would have access to a patient’s ‘bio history’ which would help doctors to identify the cause of a patient’s symptoms.

This article indicates that while other wearable technologies – like smart watches and smart glasses – have the potential to catalyse a new market for what we call the ‘wearable web’, advanced body sensors have the potential to catalyse a huge healthcare opportunity.

Both opportunities are in the 1-trillion-dollar class and, in our judgment, represent the next frontier for personal electronics.