Wearable Computers the Size of Buttons to Monitor Health

Like it or not, the insides of our bodies are becoming open books--as open as a book is when scanned by Google or Amazon, in fact. And there are seemingly as many benefits as risks.

In just the latest of many recent developments, the University of Texas at Dallas, in a new press release, notes that patients who require continuous observation of their medical condition—for example, to see if they're taking their medications on time—could benefit substantially from button-sized wireless computers to monitor a person’s health. An assistant professor of electrical engineering Roozbeh Jafari, is creating just such devices.

The primary focus of Jafari's research has been making a wireless monitoring device smaller by reducing the monitoring (and algorithms) to only those absolutely necessary, which in turn reduces the amount of energy (in the form of bulky batteries) required to run the device. He takes this approach to the biosensors connected to the device, as well as to the microcontrollers used to communicate information from the device to external monitoring systems. Jafari indicates that by tailoring the device to the patient's specific medical condition, data, algorithmic processing, and energy requirements can be further optimized.

Jafari decided to take this total system optimization approach because he observed that, “Signals and events observed from the human body tend to change slowly,” as well as, “The physics and kinematics of the human body reduce[s] the likelihood of random body signals and movements.” Therefore, the data and processing required to detect a meaningful change in a the person’s medical status being monitored can be substantially minimized.

The UT Dallas press release notes that, for example, a major worry with elderly patients is that they will suffer a crippling fall. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of three adults over the age of 65 fall each year; falls are also a leading cause of death for that age group.

A wearable computer such as the one Jafari is developing could be designed to detect precursors to a fall in an elderly patient and wouldn’t require much in the way of processing power or energy to determine if the patient were in a sitting position and therefore not at risk.

The technology to remotely monitor patient health has accelerated the past  year. In March, for instance, the world’s first flexible, organic transistor that can be sterilized was manufactured. Health monitoring devices that suffer from electrical degradation caused by the high-temperature sterilization process can, with the new material, be safely sterilized and implanted.

According to an article in October in InformationWeek, “ABI Research has projected that by 2016, wearable wireless medical device sales will reach more than 100 million devices annually. The market for wearable sports and fitness-related monitoring devices is projected to grow as well, reaching 80 million device sales by 2016.”

The InformationWeek article has a neat little slideshow that discusses ten wearable health monitoring devices, many on the market now, from a shoe insert that can monitor the rehabilitation progress of a patient suffering from a mobility injury to a chest sensor that communicates with a smart phone to support the remote monitoring of patients with cardiac arrhythmias. And some other devices are described in a September IEEE Spectrum feature, "How I Quantified Myself," by science writer Emily Waltz.

The risks of all this health data being recorded and stored in the cloud are manifest. But so are the potential benefits. Minimizing the one and maximizing the other will be one of the great IT challenges of the next decade.

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