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Medical Monitoring? It’s Telemetry, My Dear Watson

Want to monitor your blood pressure? Your glucose levels? Your ailing mother’s vitals? Well, you’re in luck. There’s probably an app for that – and a shirt, strap, patch or biosensing tattoo to go with it. Thanks to increasing policy and economic pressures fueled by a demographic shift toward an aging population, technology and textiles have converged to facilitate the rapid development of wearable medical sensors. They take diverse forms, but their overall aim is the continuous tracking of vital information that medical professionals can instantaneously upload and, often, analyze remotely.

Advances in medicine have inevitably led to shifting health concerns. Diseases that once led inexorably to death have become chronic health conditions:  high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. Simultaneously, economic realities and policy changes have put increasing pressure on hospitals to shorten stays even for patients who require continuous monitoring. The drive to find ways to effectively monitor and manage health from a distance presents a technological challenge that today’s technology and textile manufacturers are rising to meet.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the wearable sensor market revenue is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 47.40%, and cross $654.16 million by the end of 2020 according to Markets and Markets. Further, ABI Research has projected that by 2016, wearable wireless medical device sales will reach more than 100 million devices annually.

The major applications for wearable sensors in the consumer healthcare market include patient monitoring, therapeutic, imaging, handheld homecare devices, hearing aids and fitness and wellness equipment.

Some of the current players in the wearable medical device market for chronic conditions are familiar names. To address diabetes, health and tech giants Novartis AG and Google Inc. are combining forces to create a contact lens that can simultaneously monitor blood glucose levels in diabetics and correct vision – all in the blink of an eye. In chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – a lung disease characterized by increasing difficulty in breathing – Philips, in partnership with Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands, has proposed a device that would send data to caregivers through the Philips HealthSuite Digital Platform.

Still other companies are getting in on the wearable sensor game where medical monitoring data can be analyzed to provide early detection or, in some cases, prediction of heart disease, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, dementia and cancer. For example, VG Bio’s Vitalink combines wearable biosensors, Android smartphones and cloud-based predictive analytics to enable daily monitoring of patients with heart disease and provides early notification to clinicians of important changes. Another such system, First Warning Systems, can detect the earliest signs of breast tumors via a sensor device placed in a bra that measures cell temperature changes created over time by new blood vessel growth associated with developing tumors.

On the other end of the healthcare spectrum, rehabilitation and patient compliance can also be monitored remotely. Some sensors capture movement data, such as Hocoma AG’s Valedo, a medical back-training device that senses and transmits trunk movement from two wireless sensors into a motivating game environment to guide the patient through exercises specifically designed for lower back pain therapy. Philips Research’s Stroke Rehab Exerciser coaches patients through exercises designed for motor retraining.  A wireless sensor system records the patient’s movements, analyzes the data for deviations from a personal movement target and provides feedback to the patient and the therapist.

The number of wearable physiological sensors connected to smartphones is expected to grow significantly over the next five to ten years. As the healthcare industry faces increasing pressure to improve outcomes while lowering costs, the ability to combine data from these sensors with data from other systems to measure treatment effectiveness will become more important, not just in clinical trials, but in the context of managing population health.

Companies that are proactive in using sensor technology together with other techniques to create and demonstrate superior effectiveness will reap significant rewards in this environment. Jabil’s diversified manufacturing services can help accelerate and deliver the support companies need to position themselves as leaders in the burgeoning sensor and wearables market.

As Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, said in 2013, “The whole sensor field is going to explode.  It’s a little all over the place right now, but with the arc of time it will become clearer.”

Which wearable medical sensors do you think are the most practical for advancing healthcare and how are you handling the technology challenge?

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