Health monitoring – the importance of making wearable sensors ‘unawareable’

Paul Cain, Strategy Director

December 01, 2015

The ability of wearables to offer real time monitoring could revolutionise the way the healthcare industry operates – with pre-emptive measures saving lives.

When I bought my first car - a slightly rusty Ford Fiesta – I was 17 years old, and the car was about the same age! Although it developed a recurring problem with the electrics, I have great memories of this car. Twice I took it to the garage to have the issue diagnosed and fixed, but when the mechanics tested it, it happened to be running fine, and they couldn’t find out what needed fixing. Eventually, the problem was solved, but I remember at the time thinking… if only the car could have kept a record of when it was faulty, then this log would have allowed a much quicker diagnosis.

Nowadays, all cars do exactly this – the on-board computer monitors and logs many aspects of the engine’s performance like timing and emissions through the myriad of sensors – most cars today have around 100 sensors through the vehicle. When arriving for a service, this log is downloaded and in some cases actions can be taken pre-emptively to replace parts before a problem gets worse, saving time at the garage, and increasing reliability for the driver. Everyone benefits.

The importance of wearable sensors to our health

Wearable sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT) can become as essential for monitoring our health as sensors are for monitoring a car’s performance. Moreover, they have the potential to completely change the way healthcare is delivered, improving patient services and saving lives.

New trends: Flexible electronics and wearable technologyBy 2020 there will be over 3 billion wearable sensors in use providing a huge amount of additional data that can be used for health monitoring. We are already seeing smart watches that can monitor activity, as well as vital signs such as heart rate and blood oxygen levels. Earlier this year, Google announced that it will start testing a medical device that tracks health data. The device would be able to track cardiac signals of heart attack patients or monitor how the health of Parkinson’s disease sufferers changes if they spend less time moving around or going outdoors.

There are even wearable devices that can monitor glucose levels in real time using a stick-on label such as the Dexcom glucose monitor. Scientists from the University of Cincinnati are developing sweat sensors that can monitor and analyse your sweat revealing vital information about your health.

Flexible electronics will drive the future of wearable sensors

The ability to integrate sensors into our lives in unobtrusive ways that don’t affect quality of life will make their application in healthcare compelling. Wearables need to become ‘unawareables’ to succeed in healthcare applications – whether the sensors are applied to the skin, or even inside the body, they need to feel comfortable and forgettable.

Flexible electronics will make all this possible. Based on printing organic transistors on plastic film, flexible electronics technology brings unique benefits to products and manufacturing processes beyond what’s possible with silicon alone.

Imagine stick-on sensors, no more noticeable than a plaster, that can measure vital signs and relay information to a logging application, which alerts you or your healthcare provider in advance of more major symptoms. This could revolutionise the way healthcare services are provided  and increase focus of resources on treatment. It will help avoid further pain and discomfort for patients by advising them when to act and get treatment in advance of symptoms fully displaying.

If you are working on a technology that requires truly flexible electronics, please get in touch with us – wearables@flexenable.com.

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