Wearable sleep trackers, when used correctly and consistently, have vast potential to enable individuals to measure the quality of their sleep. But that’s just the beginning.
Smart wearable devices are having a moment, with demand surging over the past two years.
Sleep, too, is also having a moment, with major sports celebrities like LeBron James starring in podcasts and TV segments espousing the merits of clocking in a full night of z’s.
With both trends converging, it’s no wonder the market for wearable smart rings embedded with sleep trackers has soared. According to the latest estimates, the wearable sleep trackers market is projected to reach $4.2 billion by 2026, at a compound annual growth rate of 7.6% between 2021 to 2026.
Yet there is also a growing disconnect between the sleep data generated by these devices and our ability to make a measurable difference in resolving sleep problems that affect an estimated 70 million Americans.
What we need is not only better ways to manage sleep data, but also a more comprehensive system for managing our health.
Generating quality sleep data expands access to diagnosis
Over the last two years, technologists have made strides in improving the accuracy of wearables that can detect meaningful sleep patterns and concerns. Solutions on the market today can detect sleep patterns that compare favorably with an in-person sleep study and continuously monitor and record blood oxygen levels—something not typical for at-home wearables—which leads to more accurate readings.
This is incredible progress, considering that sleep disorders contribute to chronic conditions such as heart disease and hypertension and can worsen diseases such as diabetes.
A recent study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine revealed that just one bad night of sleep—defined as less than 6 consecutive hours of z’s—increased feelings of anger, nervousness, loneliness and frustration.
The significance is also manifold because wearables have the potential to reduce the barriers to accessing sleep disorders in a sleep lab—of which there are many.
One example: studies have indicated that black patients and patients with darker skin tones are at a higher risk for hypoxemia and subsequent negative health impacts due to less accurate pulse oximeter measurements compared to white patients. In recent years, there have been massive improvements in oximeters and wearables to close that health disparity gap and deliver accurate diagnosis to all patients, regardless of their skin tone.
More broadly, most consumers are reluctant to make an appointment with their doctors to address sleep disorders because they are aware of the huge time commitment involved if they need to undergo an in-person sleep study.
Sleep studies require at least 12 hours of time away from the home—not including time spent traveling—and are also intrusive and uncomfortable. (Not to mention, the wait time for scheduling a consultation with a sleep specialist could take months.) Plus, obtaining data from a single night of sleep in a sleep center is insufficient because it doesn’t account for variances in individual sleep patterns.
Also, the sleep study itself doesn’t actually treat the patient. It’s true that if a patient is diagnosed with sleep apnea, most health plans will cover the fitting, training and use of CPAP devices.
But it’s not standard practice to check in with patients to ensure they’re continuing to use the device. Those suffering from sleep problems in conjunction with other disorders, such as PTSD, are left to their own devices to figure out how to supplement care.
Taking wearables to the next level
Having clinically validated solutions that can distill and contextualize data into meaningful and actionable insights for the consumer to act upon is a gamechanger.
Yet it is only a gamechanger if we act. As most disorders are complex in nature and co-occur with physical and mental issues such as stress, PTSD, lung disease or MS, we need to consider treatments in a broader context. All of these conditions impact an individual’s quality of life and cannot be treated by simply prescribing a CPAP device.
A more holistic approach would address sleep while addressing other concerns. This might include, for example, the use of medical-grade sleep-tracking smart rings to collect data on a nightly basis, and then transmit it to a remote sleep lab for analysis by a clinical specialist. Using a rich data set, such as 10 to 14 consecutive nights of data, can help specialists isolate individual behaviors, like waking up two to three times per night, that requires attention.
If this comprehensive approach is used along with telehealth to facilitate interactions between individuals and sleep specialists, patients will regularly interact with the professionals who can offer more specific solutions and supplemental care, such as seeing a behavioral health therapist or lifestyle modification.
Elevating sleep, improving quality of life
The sleep crisis in America won’t be solved by handing out lavender satchels or fitting everyone in America with a CPAP device. To truly address sleep health, we need to reframe our mindset around sleep as a key contributor to overall health management.
As more consumers adopt wearable technology, health leaders should seize this moment as an opportunity for engaging them in improving their sleep health. By easing the barriers to sleep health awareness, diagnosis of disorders and treatments, health leaders will ensure that more Americans will have the access to resources they need to sleep soundly long into the future.
Patrick Yam is the CEO and cofounder of Somnology
Mark Goettling is the cofounder of BodiMetrics