Tracking blood pressure could become as natural to us wearable users as getting our 10,000 steps, according to Steven LeBoeuf, the president of Valencell.
At CES 2023, Valencell unveiled the world’s first cuffless blood pressure tracker - one which doesn’t require calibration and paves the way for a future where wearables can automatically track blood pressure.
It’s a huge leap forward for the health feature - not just in the scope of wearables - and one that LeBoeuf believes will make it easier and more accurate for users to give blood pressure data to their doctor.
The easier placement of the Valencell device on the finger makes it less complicated to take an accurate measurement. Unlike the traditional cuff, the fingertip clip also doesn't need to be calibrated for use.
"Hypertension is a big, big issue. And people who need to measure their blood pressure don't – and they don't because it's such a pain in the ass to do the measurement. People also tend to do it incorrectly," LeBoeuf told Wareable in a recent interview.
Evolving from on-the-spot readings
But LeBoeuf is already thinking further ahead, about how wearables could change the relationship we have with blood pressure to something we're aware of continuously, like our step counts.
"I think that's an interesting way to phrase it. I think the thing with 10,000 steps is a great analogy.
"We will use the finger sensor as a predicate for passive monitoring – without people having to think about it at all.
“I do believe that passive monitoring for blood pressure and other biometrics that help manage chronic disease will increasingly be something that the marketplace is asking for - not just consumers, but also physicians. But that's going to take a lot of time," he said.
Passive monitoring has already been explored by Aktiia, the European blood pressure wearable start-up, that has a wearable that, like the Samsung Galaxy Watch 5, needs to be validated by the cuff.
And LeBoeuf believes the way Aktiia thinks about continuous, passive blood pressure monitoring could be the future:
"Aktiia believes there’s more to learn from daily changes in blood pressure than spot checks on blood pressure – and I do believe they're on to something," he said.
But he warned that the medical world may take time to catch up.
"The challenge is that it's going to take a decade before physicians accept that."
LeBoeuf also believes that while the idea of getting 10,000 steps has always been subject to debate, the FDA’s intention to regulate wearables for blood pressure will clear up uncertainty:
"You know, physicians still have this debate about how many steps is good - some say 3,000, some say 10,000. It's really kind of across the map. I imagine in a regulated world, things would be different.
"And it's pretty clear that the FDA, at least in the United States, is trying to work with wearable companies for blood pressure, but these devices will be regulated”
Slow down of innovation
Wearables have had almost uninhibited chances for growth over the past few years, with heart rate and SpO2 going unchecked by the FDA.
But, as the complexity of wearables grows, the FDA is now demanding more scrutiny.
LeBoeuf now believes that the time and investment required for FDA clearance will affect the number of consumer companies willing to go the distance.
“Once you open the door for FDA regulation, it slows down your product launch capabilities. I'm really curious about which companies will have the wherewithal to deal with that. Which consumer brands are really going to be willing to stomach that?” he said.
Smart rings have a big future
Multiple times in our chat, LeBoeuf brought up the smart ring form factor.
This has been dominated by Oura, but we're not seeing rivals such as Movano Evie look to bring medical-grade tracking to the finger.
With such a nascent technology, we asked how important he thinks smart rings could become.
"Some people don't want to wear a smartwatch, and some people don't want to wear a ring. It turns out that a large part of the population doesn't want to wear anything," he explained.
"You get an awesome blood flow supply and a lot of people are used to sleeping with things like wedding rings. A lot of people don't take them off. So those things are kind of consistent.
"So, the ring form factor bodes really well for blood pressure spot checks during the evening, and continuous tracking while you're sleeping," he said.
Glucose tracking no longer the impossible dream
Back in 2018, when Wareable spoke to LeBoeuf, he told us that true non-invasive blood glucose tracking would never happen.
It’s safe to say that his attitude has softened.
While he maintained that non-invasive tracking at the level of accuracy comparable with a blood draw was still unlikely, he is excited about the potential that blood glucose tracking wearables will have for general users – away from diabetics.
The technology is being explored by Movano and Rockley Photonics, as well as Fitbit.
"I think it's a great use case. It’s definitely possible to provide people with categorizations of where their glucose is. Is it too high? Is it too low? And that is viable with a non-invasive approach – and that’s how I imagine it would work," he said.
But LeBoeuf pointed out that advances in minimally invasive patches, which have been developed by the likes of Dexcom and Abbott, are now so good at delivering medical-grade insights, it diminishes the appeal of less accurate non-invasive sensors.
"Some of these minimally invasive approaches, like those used by Dexcom and Abbott, have gotten so good and so low profile that diabetics love to use them. So what would non-invasive ones be used for?"
All of this is well into the future, but Valencell’s current aims are clear.
The company says it hopes that its cuffless blood pressure tracker launch later this year – and that it will sell its finger-based clip-on device for $99.
That’s a low price for such a potentially game-changing piece of technology, and it will be fascinating to see how long it takes to arrive in smart rings, smartwatches, and other form factors.
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