Most health electronics you’ve heard of are good at tracking your fitness. You can track your step count with a pedometer. You can also get data on your heart rate. Some devices even give claim to provide data on the quality of your sleep. All these monitoring devices leave a vital gap: helping you recover from injuries and illnesses faster. In our 24/7 world, the cost of getting sick has never been higher. That’s why you need remote healthcare devices.
Before we explain how a new generation of remote sensor hardware and software is changing healthcare, we need to look at the current situation. Consider how much shopping has changed with the rise of e-commerce giants such as Alibaba and Amazon. These firms and their logistics support have increased our expectations for convenience. More and more, we expect every interaction to be fast and digital.
Now, look at how conventional healthcare is delivered. You have to call the clinic or hospital to make an appointment. You probably cannot get the time you want, so you have to rearrange your schedule. At your appointment, there’s paperwork to do. Your actual appointment lasts 10-20 minutes. Fortunately, most doctors and nurses care about patients, so the experience goes well while you see them. If you’re recovering from an injury situation, the inconvenience is multiplied for weeks. Healthcare robotics are already helping to address the cost of healthcare, but those don’t help with injury recovery. That’s where remote sensors come into the picture.
Remote healthcare treatments have been around for years. We’ve had “telemedicine” where patients can obtain live consultations from experts in medicine. However, caring for injuries and monitoring recoveries when a person is outside the hospital? That’s been a challenge. Let’s take a look at the hardware recently developed by Bend Labs and other firms.
These healthcare sensors are placed directly on the person’s body. Once in operation, it gathers data hundreds of times per second. This is important because it gives healthcare professionals more data to evaluate your situation. The device captures these observations by using angular displacement sensor technology. This technology measures movement bi-directionally. By measuring movement with each step and flex, the sensors help doctors understand your range of flexibility.
From a hardware perspective, several other important features to this equipment are of note. The sensors are placed on the outside of the body, so there’s minimal impact on the patient. Further, the sensors are physically small, so it’s possible to wear them underneath clothing. Small sensor size is important because it allows a patient to go through his or her daily routine while generating data for later analysis.
From a power perspective, the Bend Labs sensors are engineered to operate on a lower power basis. It can run with an active current down to 78 uA so that you can use the same battery for an extended period. As a healthcare device, low power usage also reduces the risk of accidental injury due to electrical malfunction.
What will the next generation of these healthcare sensors achieve? They may include infrared sensors. With this capability, the device can detect changes in body heat. That information will give physicians and other healthcare professionals better insights.
There are some drawbacks to this type of remote sensor in healthcare. From a strain perspective, sensors are limited in how much strain they can bear in both percentage terms and duration. If a competitive athlete were recovering from an injury and continuing to train, conventional sensors might not be able to continue measuring accurately in that context. Further, there’s potential for user interference damaging the device. As Bendlab’s documentation notes, “Never grip the sensor by the PCB or attaching wires, as this may lead to premature failure of the part.” Future iterations of these sensors may mitigate some of these limitations.
Using remote healthcare sensor devices directly improves outcomes for patients and society. After surgery or following an injury, many physicians recommend a course of physical therapy to their clients. If this course of action is followed, patients will recover quicker and get back to walking, running, and enjoying life. There’s a problem, though. Once you leave the hospital, all the distractions of daily life return, and it’s tough to focus on physical therapy exercises. By using remote healthcare sensor monitoring, physical therapists can provide feedback and reminders to the patient. Now, how does this sensor technology benefit the healthcare field?
Rather than chasing down patients for appointments after surgery, health care professionals can review data from their office. As a result, we’ll see fewer unnecessary monitoring appointments at clinics, hospitals, and health offices. That means lower healthcare expenses without hurting patients. To obtain these benefits, remote healthcare sensors will need to be deployed in large numbers.
Increased sensor accuracy, lower-cost components, and low-power parts are combining to make remote healthcare possible. That said, there are still a few significant technological and social barriers that hold this technology back from widespread adoption. Until these matters are addressed, it’ll be difficult for remote sensors to take off.
Privacy and security of health data is a major concern for remote healthcare. The growing number of data breach events in banking, government, and retail is terrible enough. As more health information goes digital, protecting that data will become more of a challenge. Thankfully, legal restrictions from HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) in the United States and GDPR in Europe are putting pressure on companies to improve protection.
In terms of technology, reliability is a barrier. When you rely upon users to attach sensors to their bodies, there’s a risk that the sensors will be damaged or attached incorrectly. As a result, the sensors won’t work correctly. This barrier can likely be addressed with better diagnostics, such as asking a user to verify the sensor is working on his or her smartphone.
We predict that remote healthcare technology will grow rapidly as the cost of technology continues to fall.
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