12/19/2014 02:41 EST | Updated 02/18/2015 05:59 EST

Wearable opportunities lie in chronic diseases

Wearable technologies such as smart watches that offer fitness information at a glance are part of a growing industry, but health technology experts say innovators should focus on where the need is greatest.

Activity monitors such as FitBit and Jawbone Up range in price from $50 to $200 and are marketed to those interested in getting more physically fit.

The global market for wearable medical devices, from heart rate and pulse monitors to glucose management, was valued at $2 billion U.S. in 2012 and is expected to reach $5.8 billion in 2019, Transparency Market Research estimates.

"One challenge is what some people call the top drawer syndrome," said Jayson Parker, a medical biotechnology analyst at University of Toronto Mississauga. "You buy the health technology, you use it for a while, and then it ends up in your top drawer, never to be retrieved again."

Fitness wearables offer great insights into activity levels, but the market for those devices is already crowded, said engineer Joseph Cafazzo, who leads the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation at Toronto’s University Health Network.

Cafazzo says it is early days for the industry. He sees potential in apps to combine different types of data to help people who have chronic illnesses.

"What we're trying to do is combine the things that you should be doing to manage with your diabetes with your markers. What you're eating, maybe your activity levels through a Fitbit or Jawbone Up so people can understand the relationship between what they're eating, their activity levels and their blood sugar levels."

He's also working to develop a device that captures ECG data and streams the heart rate variability data to a smartphone.

These more complex wearables, such as contact lenses to monitor glucose levels in tears of people with diabetes, are classified as medical devices by Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The regulators need to approve the products for sale.

Manufacturers may see the regulations on medical devices for people with chronic diseases as a disincentive. For Parker, that’s because many don’t appreciate the opportunities that lie along the whole continuum between fitness wearables and medical devices.