The wearable medical technology revolution
The news that Google, Apple and Samsung are all about to launch their own data service to collect and summarise people’s general health data comes with no surprise in a world where smartphones have become populated with fitness and wellbeing apps – Runtastic, MyFitnessPal, FoodScanner, Sleep Cycle, allowing users such things as monitoring their calories intake or tracking their runs through GPS, are just a few of those some of us grew accustomed to over the past couple of years. Fitness bands, incorporating motion sensors that record any form of exercise, naturally came into existence to facilitate the otherwise annoying use of your phone during physical activity. They even surpassed their mere utility and are now in fashion and commonly spotted on the wrist of anybody, elders included. This type of technology, constantly in contact with your body, is designed to remind and push you to do more to be fit, and may help reduce chronic diseases brought forward by lack of exercise. Yet the possibilities that wearable technology opens are far more interesting and exciting, and bound to make a real difference in how we perceive and experience medical practice.
As an example, Google and Novartis, a global healthcare company, recently announced their collaboration towards a new form of contact lenses capable of measuring glucose levels from tears. Such technology would bring drastic benefits to diabetics, easing them of the burden of checking their blood every time by pricking their finger. The same team is also said to be working on lenses that automatically adjust focus (yes, bionic eyes are coming!). While this may be one of the first bits of medical wearable tech that make the news, much research is going on in the world on complex devices to measure a range of body parameters for medical purposes. Imagine your doctor being able to check your heart rate or temperature, or even levels of infectious bacteria, all of this remotely. The excitement over new body sensors and remote checking is so high that the field has been given its own name: mobile health, also known as “mHealth”. Wearable technology is an integral part of it, so here is a quick look at the future to see what might be available in only a few years in hospitals or even on the shelves of your local pharmacy.
Sensors that monitor the amount of certain substances while in contact with the body are termed non-invasive electrochemical sensors. Body fluids are the ideal medium for sensing: sweat, saliva, tears, all carry a large amount of information about the body, so that it is not necessary to test the blood of a person through (invasive) injections. The contact lenses referred to before are one example of devices incorporating electrochemical sensors. Another example is the bandage developed by a team lead by Professor Wang at the University of California, San Diego. This incorporates pH sensors that monitor the acidity of a wound, a sign of its level of healing. The same team established the concept of temporary tattoo – similar to the water-activated ones sported by kids, they allow contact with the skin for extensive durations. In order to resist the heavy stretching that our skin is subjected to, carbon fibers have been added to the formulation, and a range of sensors can be included to measure the parameters of interest. One amazing application is their use of our body fluids as biofuel to extract energy and deliver it to other wearable devices. Similarly, another team of researchers led by Michael McAlpine created a dental tattoo made of silk, ultra-thin gold wires and graphene that sticks to our teeth and is able to constantly monitor bacteria activity in the mouth environment and transmit it to a display wirelessly.
If you are worried about these tattoos looking ugly on you, don’t worry: the clothes you wear every day are just as good a place to sense your skin. So-called “smart-textiles” are already a reality in labs and incorporate sensors to monitor anything from electrolyte imbalance to dehydration (see Coyle’s research at Dublin City University). A simple yet useful application: a team of researchers in Finland have invented a vest for babies that keeps track of their location and triggers alarms once certain boundaries are crossed or the child gets too far from the parents. A temperature sensor is also incorporated for the paediatric to monitor the wellbeing of the baby remotely.
Wearable technology is already part of some people’s lives, and a plethora of new applications are about to reach even more. The mHealth revolution has started, be ready for a deep change in medicine.