More than 100 million people in the United States suffer from chronic pain, a difficult condition to manage for doctors and patients. Working with Ideo, the medical technology company Neurometrix introduced an over-the-counter electrical nerve stimulation device called Quell to help alleviate pain. What the device shows is a meaningful application of wearable technology to a segment of the population that sorely needs innovation, says Dr. Shai N. Gozani, Neurometrix's CEO.
"Wearables and, more broadly, the digital health umbrella needs to attack chronic disease and not just focus on the healthiest segment of the population," Gozani says. "You have a lot of technologies and they are, to put it bluntly, 'afraid' of the FDA implications of getting into disease. Until the tech companies become consumer medical technology companies, I think it's going to limit what wearables and digital health can do."
Neurometrix has been in the medical device business for nearly 20 years but branched into the consumer market in 2015 with the launch of Quell. Specializing in prescription chronic pain management products, the company enlisted Ideo to help reframe its technology for consumers. Quell stimulates nerves on a wearer's upper calf—the sensation produced by electric shocks doesn't hurt—which activates a part of the brain and blocks pain signals. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation—known as TENS—has been around for decades, but only through doctors.
"In the prescription market, you meet the requirements of the insurers—they look at cost and replacement time," Gozani says. "Consumers want products that they’re comfortable wearing, that they would be proud of. They both want relief for chronic pain, but there are different requirements—consumers are willing to pay for innovation, like tying it to a smartphone."
Ideo tackled the challenge with its signature human-centered design approach. Working with focused groups suffering from chronic pain, Ideo prototyped and refined the design. Quell is shaped like a sports band that wraps around a user's leg. "We needed to bring consumer experiences to the product," José Colucci, senior portfolio director and associate partner at Ideo, says. "Though it is a medical device, it’s also a lifestyle object. We didn’t try to disguise the device—it says 'I am wearing it, and I’m proud to wear it.'"
The consumer experience extends to the packaging, which mirrors what it's like to open high-end electronics, and an accompanying app. It takes about a minute to set up the device and calibrate the stimulation levels. "People with pain have a lot to deal with," Gozani says. "We want to take away any hassle."
Quell is FDA-approved as a treatment for chronic pain. Neuometrix doesn't make any claims that the product will reduce the use of medication, though it says that two-thirds of its users—including patients dealing with neuropathy, sciatica, arthritis, and fibromyalgia—report taking fewer pain killers after using the product. Neurometrix views Quell as a powerful tool in what's often a very large toolbox for pain relief, one that often includes other alternative treatments, like acupuncture, relaxation therapy, and herbal remedies.
"With regards to pain, there is a general frustration with what the medical system has been able to offer," Gozani says. "There’s a real opportunity to give people a tool to self-manage chronic pain."
At CES 2016, Neurometrix plans to expand Quell's app offerings, though Gozani wouldn't reveal what specifically that is. He hopes that more companies will use wearables to treat illness. While there are endless fitness trackers, smartwatches, and notification devices masquerading as baubles, there are far fewer wearables that treat serious conditions like diabetes and heart disease. "Tech companies in wearable technology are trying to avoid the FDA but they would be doing more good by taking on the challenge," he says.