Nowadays, smart devices with health and fitness tracking capabilities are commonplace – monitoring the exercise levels of millions of people by tracking their movements and heart rates. For those interested in health tech, or the use of technology in medicine and public health, there is reason to be excited.
Developing Smart Devices
Different teams of scientists from the United States and Japan have pushed beyond previous storage and size limits and developed a new kind of device called an electronic ‘smart skin’. This groundbreaking research was presented in the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Austin, Texas. These stretchable and flexible devices contain sensors which are placed directly onto a person’s skin. They can then be used to monitor different physiological and biochemical entities – and therefore have huge functional potential in the fields of sports medicine, stroke medicine, and paediatrics.
The American researchers based in Northwestern University, led by Professor John Rogers, developed this ultra-thin skin-like patch capable of detecting the biochemical properties of sweat. This is especially useful in sports medicine when sports physicians want to monitor their players’ body condition in response to exercise. The sweat’s content, such as the different concentrations of electrolytes and proteins, is shown as colour changes on the device, allowing sports physicians to quickly identify a person’s electrolyte levels.
The device can also be used in stroke patients, who often have problems with their speech and swallowing capabilities, undergoing rehabilitation at home. By placing this smart skin around the throat region of these patients, vibrations of the vocal cord may be detected. These data are then transmitted wirelessly to a computer system in a healthcare centre and can warn health care professionals when a patient is not performing as well as they should during rehabilitation.
The Japanese team led by Professor Takao Someya from the University of Tokyo developed a similar device capable of showing the moving waveform of an ECG, as well as vital signs such as temperature. Because the device is so soft and thin, it could be particularly useful in the healthcare of babies, with infant patients more likely to cope with low-intensity monitoring than traditional methods of performing an ECG or measuring vital observations.
The development of smart skins is extremely exciting, but to see them being used widely in the NHS, the manufacturing costs must be severely reduced, and there is therefore still a long way to go before they can benefit patients en masse.