New wearable digital technology devices are certainly nifty and enticing. First-generation wearables measure caloric intake and consumption; track blood pressure, heart rate, blood oxygenation and sleep stages; and check and correct posture, among other functions — and these are only some of their roles.

They have definitely arrived: A review from a leading Finnish technology firm indicates that wearables worldwide will number more than 1 billion by 2022. They will not only be worn but will also continuously gather and disseminate personal health information to different parts of the digital infrastructure.

But there's a wrinkle in wearables. After a bit, people tend not to use them whether deliberately or neglectfully. It's akin to failing to take the full course of prescription medication.

A recent article in a leading online medical journal by four researchers at the University of Southern California's Center for Body Computing addresses this phenomenon. It indicates that whether one wears a device with useful persistence depends largely on the wearer. That is, whether a wearable is used beyond the average duration of about six months depends greatly on a user's personality and lifestyle.

That may explain the reality that a certain wearable and its related app may be relevant, if not instrumental, in helping to resolve a health-related issue or achieving a health-related objective (exercising more or eating better), but it may not be adequately exploited by wearers. So it may not catch on in the marketplace.

Nonetheless, the Finnish review indicates that wearables are at least a boon to applying big data and useful algorithms to medical research and practice. Wearables will definitely have a role to play once some of their wrinkles are ironed out.

To many, it was almost predictable: People with generally more satisfying lives are naturally prone to pursue self-improvement goals and regimens more diligently — for them, wearables are a welcome adjunct. They are also more prone to stick with a wellness regimen or app they've adopted, giving both the wearable device and its corresponding app more of a fighting chance, so to speak.

But other types of users let up or give up too easily — which can be for a variety of reasons: They simply forget about the devices; find them cosmetically unattractive; or have already attained their health and fitness goals. So a wearable's weaknesses can be multiple and varied.

A more auspicious image of wearable tech emerges from the point of view of clinicians and medical researchers who collect and track a lot of medical information in order to further their research and expand medical knowledge.

They know that wearables have already been quite helpful in clinical settings and promise to be a boon to applying big data and artificial intelligence to both healthcare and research. After all, the devices are attached to their hosts for hours at a time and are able to integrate data from a number of different sources.

They're already key to "individualized big data," which "has become a reality," according to the review. Meanwhile, the technology offers other functional types — as if from the realm of science fiction — like invisibles, iris scanning and smart shirts.

But at least two major hurdles in particular afflict the new technology:

  • how to safeguard the private medical information spread by the devices from leaks — that is, setting limits to its use
  • endowing smaller healthcare and other firms with the raw computing capacity to manage and analyze the large amounts of information that wearables will provide

More and more, it's likely that a patient considering any prospective medical treatment or participation in a clinical (research) trial will first ponder its information and privacy implications. That will greatly impact the person's choice to participate at all, much less whether to don related wearables.

This trend merely reflects the increasing tendency of all digital device users to weigh the risks versus benefits of providing personal information to organizations. It's the well-known privacy calculus that users are increasingly applying to their health information.

Such users won't be too forgiving when it comes to medical information. The review stresses that a person's individual health information has proven to be more sensitive than other types of user data, such as demographic information, a person's web searches or record of retail transactions.

So wearables have an ambitious docket of challenges to contend with in any of the futures conceived for them. Will enough users, having weighed the cost in privacy versus benefit of obtaining better health outcomes, come to the table?

It's safe to say a lot more research into the variability of consumers' privacy concerns about wearable tech is called for. Perhaps the most elusive question of all: How will public opinion impact the use of technology that is so robust in its capacity to store, manipulate and disseminate in personal medical information?