Innovations in Continuous Health Monitoring

The proliferation of smartphones and the acceptance of wearable devices have emboldened medical device and diagnostic companies to experiment with body-worn sensors that can monitor vital signs and transmit them in real time to an online platform that can be remotely accessed. Frost & Sullivan profiles some continuous health monitors.

A study conducted by the Harvard Medical School in 2015 reported that a hospital visit takes 121 minutes on average. Travel alone accounted for more than 30 minutes, and waiting for care and filling out forms consumed more than 64 minutes. The effective face time with a physician did not last more than a few minutes. The waiting time is much longer in smaller hospitals and rural health centers, and when an emergency ward experiences seasonal spikes in patient admittance (such as for influenza treatment). Needless to say, the situation is direr in emerging countries. This author spent nearly an hour waiting in the lobby of a private clinic in India last week for a two-minute diagnosis of Streptococcal pharyngitis, or strep throat. It would not be an exaggeration to say that patients skip checkups and clinic consults because of the dreaded wait time.

Even if we grant that a throat infection, flu or other such illnesses warrant a clinic visit and that the wait time is a painful price to pay, this excuse falls flat for routine checkups. Every day, thousands of patients go to their cardiologist or neurologist only to be told that (thankfully) their vital signs read normal and they can continue their medication for another few months. These checkups can be sped up to ease the burden of physicians and hospital staff and relieve the aggravation of patients—and save millions of dollars annually in transportation costs and productivity losses. Body-worn sensors serve as excellent continuous vital signs monitors and can record physiological data throughout the year. In fact, continuous health monitoring is not shackled by monthly or quarterly visits, so doctors can suggest remedial actions as and when they notice the signs are not within the prescribed limits.

The proliferation of smartphones and the acceptance of wearable devices have emboldened medical device and diagnostic companies to experiment with body-worn sensors that can monitor vital signs and transmit them in real time to an online platform that can be remotely accessed. Frost & Sullivan profiles some continuous health monitors.

MedioTek Health Systems (Chennai, India)

MedioTek has developed a wrist-worn, multi-parametric sensor that can measure heart rate, respiration rate, oxygen saturation and body temperature. The device, VinCense, also acts as a data aggregator from third-party devices, such as blood glucose monitors, to create a central repository of patient vital signs. MedioTek is cognizant of the toll that continuous monitoring can take on battery capacity and on-board memory: the default sampling frequency is set at one-hour intervals, though if a physician or an attending nurse wants to obtain recordings immediately, a simple push of a button in the mobile app remotely triggers the sensors for a spot check. VinCense has CE Mark approval for clinical use in Europe, as well as for screening and monitoring applications.

Umana Medical (Birkirkara, Malta)

Umana Medical has miniaturized the sensor to the level of a stretchable electronic material that can cover the skin—a kind of electronic tattoo. These e-tattoos are ultra-thin epidermal conductive sensors; they can detect bioelectronic signals from the brain, heart, skin and muscles. The clear tattoo can wirelessly transmit ECG and respiration data to a small, portable receiver that converts the raw data into numerical data that can be analyzed on a smartphone app. Umana T1, as the tattoo and receiver system is known, is currently undergoing clinical studies with as many as 2,000 volunteers. The product is expected to be launched commercially in Europe in the next few months.

University of California, San Diego

The gastrointestinal (GI) tract houses a complicated biochemical environment. The tract feeds, literally and figuratively, several diseases. From acid reflux to fatigue, and from cancer to depression, the GI tract is a treasure trove of information that can be mined for effective and timely diagnosis. However, conventional approaches to image the tract using endoscopy may prove to be time-consuming, expensive and inefficient. University researchers have developed a wearable sensor patch that can record the myoelectrical activity in the gut over a 24-hour period. The sensor records the electrical activity of the stomach muscles, which is no mean feat: these signals are considerably weaker than those of the heart (ECG). Using special data processing algorithms, the researchers were able to reliably obtain information that they believe can be used to diagnose GI diseases, and through further extrapolation and analysis, other diseases as well.

The Road Ahead

The future of diagnosis and patient monitoring is clearly in the direction of continuous vital signs monitoring. Technology platforms resulting from the miniaturization of electronic components and innovations such as stretchable and flexible electronics, although still in their infancy, will soon dominate the remote patient monitoring scene. This technology will particularly be useful in monitoring the health of armed forces in distant locations, managing stress levels at work, and monitoring the well-being of professionals working under extreme conditions, including emergency responders, deep-sea divers and astronauts.

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