What’s Next in Wearable Healthcare Design?
From making it possible to check vital signs to helping shrink development cycles, the advances happening right now in the medical electronics sector getting noticed.
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting with doctors and clinicians who were attending the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) in Seattle. We had a fruitful discussion. More importantly, I came away with their validation that the technology behind Maxim’s bio-sensor technologies would be useful in clinical settings, providing the foundation for relatively inexpensive means to monitor vital signs. Maxim’s hSensor Platform is an example of the enabling technologies that we are developing.
Getting this assurance is exciting, but envisioning how our sensor solutions can be used to help people live healthier lives is even more thrilling. Can you imagine the outcomes if people in far-away villages, with little access to healthcare, could be monitored remotely via a wearable healthcare device or bio-sensor-enabled smartphone? Or what about hospitals with limited quantities of medical equipment? Being able to use cost-effective patches that could measure vital signs, for example, could bring greater cost-efficiencies to medical practices.
Maxim’s hSensor Platform integrates a biopotential analog front-end (AFE) solution, a pulse oximeter and heart-rate sensor, two human body temperature sensors, a three-axis accelerometer, a 3D accelerometer and 3D gyroscope, and an absolute barometric pressure sensor. Using the platform, customers can evaluate each of these components for their own design concepts. Use cases include:
- Optical sensor solutions, measuring heart rate and blood-oxygen levels
- Electrocardiogram applications via designs such as wearable patches, chest strap solutions, and arrhythmia detection devices
- Temperature measurement solution
- Multi-sensor solutions, measuring a variety of parameters
Designing with the platform can reduce the product development cycle by up to six months.
My meeting with the Seattle healthcare professionals was just one part of an effort to validate our wearable healthcare technology. This meeting was coordinated with help from Specialists in Global Health (SiGH), a nonprofit group based out of UC San Diego that supports medical specialist education worldwide and promotes the development and adoption of problem-solving mobile technologies. SiGH is also conducting a clinical validation trial to determine whether our technology can be used effectively in a hospital setting. They’ll finish their trial this summer, so I’ll report more when I receive their findings.
Telehealth Nearing Reality
When it comes to wearable technologies, fitness trackers are just scratching the surface of what we can create and enable. With the technologies, connectivity, and applications we now have in place, we’re getting closer to making telehealth a more prevalent reality. Devices that can transmit health-related data from patients to doctors will become more common. For example, last summer, researchers from several universities around the world announced the development of a stretchable, wearable, battery-free patch that can monitor heart rate, blood-oxygen level, skin temperature, ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure, and changes in skin color. The very thin patch can transmit this health data wirelessly and is wirelessly powered via near-field communication (NFC) transmissions, which the researchers documented in an optoelectronics article on Science Advances.
Wearable healthcare devices will also enable frequent patient monitoring—a capability that doctors have traditionally lacked once a patient leaves the office. Last summer, Wichita State University biomedical engineering students received a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to further develop a mobile health monitoring app for smartwatches called Mobile HealthLink. The idea behind the app is to allow doctors to remotely monitor their patients without requiring an office visit. Patients, in turn, could communicate with their doctors via their watch interface.
Technologists are continuing to explore the efficacy of using wearable technologies to monitor a variety of other health parameters. For decades now, researchers have been examining ways to enable non-invasive blood glucose measurements, and we’re now seeing some positive signs. So perhaps we could see some working solutions in the next 5 to 10 years. There’s also work in finding ways to commercialize lower cost solutions, such as monitors that both measure and administer insulin to Type 2 diabetics. Body hydration is another area of research, but since it doesn’t correspond to any units of measurement, it’s been challenging to develop a tool that can accurately alert the user when he or she needs to drink some water. Alternative (non-cuff) methods to measure blood pressure are also under exploration.
Moving Toward Value-Based Healthcare
Wearables and other telehealth systems can potentially transform healthcare. Imagine the impact for people with limited mobility or those living in remote parts of the developing world who have don’t have convenient access to medical care. In fact, as these technologies become more widely used, they can impact all of us. Last November, at the IDTechEx Show! in Santa Clara, Google’s Heidi Dohse chronicled her 30-year journey with heart disease. During this talk, she highlighted how wearables and patient-generated data are moving us toward a value-based model of care versus our current fee-for-service model. Dohse’s pacemaker, which has built-in WiFi, alerts her when her heartbeat isn’t in a safe range when she’s racing her bike. It can also transmit data collected directly to her doctor.
Indeed, a value-based model of care, where patients and doctors alike are empowered with better access to health data, can potentially encourage better outcomes. Looking ahead, low power, small form factor, and low cost will continue to drive the underlying technologies inside wearable healthcare devices. Ultimately, these technologies can help support a healthier world.
Andrew Baker is Executive Director, Industrial & Healthcare Business Unit, Maxim Integrated