A vast desert landscape with few major cities, Australia’s Northern Territory is sparsely populated; over 75% of its Aboriginal population lives in “remote or very remote areas.” Many of Australia’s Torres Strait Islanders also live far from dense urban centers. What these two distinct indigenous communities also have in common is a need for improved health services: a need that the Australian government has pledged to address with its National Agreement on Closing the Gap. And the government seems to be making good on that promise with its latest initiatives that bring wearables to these underserved groups. Four 5-year-long research projects, funded by about $7.5 million, will focus on health monitoring and diagnostic testing.
One of the four clinical trials focuses on people with hypertension, meeting a significant need as about 1 in 3 adults in Australia have high blood pressure and nearly 25% of the population at large has uncontrolled high blood pressure. Some of these folks will now get wearable cuffless blood pressure monitoring devices, and the randomized trial will assess how these devices impact care factors, including adherence to medication. For a second study, people with type 2 diabetes will get physical activity trackers. The collected data, along with the person’s medical record, will be used to help control blood sugar, blood pressure, and set health goals. Again, this program addresses a pressing need; about 5% of Australian adults have type 2 diabetes.
A third trial focuses on the needs of children with cerebral palsy, who usually spend prolonged hours sitting, and this sedentary behavior carries the risk of developing a number of chronic health conditions later as adults. In conjunction with their families and caregivers, children with cerebral palsy who aren’t able to walk will be given sensors to monitor their movements. The idea is that these wearables will help spur more movement and thus improve health. And a fourth study offers rapid blood tests for early diagnoses of infections, meeting a need that is particular to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who can sometimes wait up to a week for blood test results.
Malarndirri McCarthy, Australia’s Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health, says, “New health technologies and tools such as wearable health technologies and point-of-care testing have the potential to transform primary health care. By putting existing new technologies to the test, these research projects could lead to rapid improvements in health outcomes for people with chronic conditions and for First Australians and others living in remote areas.” Of course, we’ll have to wait to see the results of these initiatives, but the fact that the government is getting behind health wearables is a promising sign.