electronic-fingertip-surgical-gloveWearable technologies are suddenly on everyone’s minds. And if you’re thinking Gore-Tex®, or perhaps LYCRA®, then no, we’re not talking about outdoor or fitness wear, although no doubt these technologies will be taken up by the fitness industry in due course. Instead, we’re talking about technologies worn close to the body, on the body or even in the body that have potential to improve health and treatment of illness and disease.

The Wearable Technologies conference in San Francisco in July was an opportunity to hear from and network with pioneers in the field. With sessions covering linking smart technologies to the Internet of Things, the potential of cloud, and efficiency, it may sound like it was ‘business as usual’. But the subject matter was anything but usual. These technologies really do have the potential to change healthcare, if licensed and picked up by users.

What these technologies really enable is personalisation of healthcare. As sensors get ever smaller, they can be used to detect changes not just in an individual’s response to stimulus, whether pain or drugs, but also in the location of that response. And the technology enables appropriate counter-responses to that response, such as directed pain relief.

Wearable technology in action

An early example is sensor that has already been approved by the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) as well as for use in Europe. Proteus Digital Health announced in August last year that they had designed a sensor that could be embedded into a tablet and therefore swallowed. Once it reaches the stomach, this Ingestion Event Marker sends out a signal to a patch worn by the person who has swallowed it. This patch sends a wireless message to a smartphone app. The signal also relays other information, including heart rate, body position and activity level. So, with appropriate consent, doctors and other health professionals can monitor to make sure that medication has been appropriately taken. Not necessary for a simple painkiller, but maybe a lifesaver for cancer patients, or those who need to take regular immuno-suppressants?

You may be thinking that a swallowable sensor doesn’t sound wearable. But how about a sticking plaster or bandage that responds to pain? Thimble Bioelectronics is working on just that. They are using Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) which you’ve probably heard of if you’ve got children (TENS machines are recommended for reducing pain in the early stages of labour).

The idea for a wearable pain patch developed from the founder, Shaun Rahimi’s own struggles with chronic arm and back pain. Finding no easy solutions, he decided to create one. The exact form of the ‘TENS’ patch is not yet clear, but the company have revealed that it will use Bluetooth technology to communicate with a smartphone app to support pain tracking and management. While there is still some controversy around the efficacy of TENS, and research results are inconclusive, this patch does sound very convenient, and has sufficient potential to have reached the final of the 2012 Wearable Technologies Innovation World Cup. And there will be no shortage of sufferers of chronic pain who would be prepared to try it if and when it does reach clinical trials.

Future outlook

This technology obviously has huge potential to personalise healthcare. But how might the future look? One woman who is taking the future into her own hands is Tanya Vlach. Ms Vlach lost an eye in a car accident back in 2005, and not content to wait and see what technology might bring, has raised her own funding to put a team together to create a small camera to fit inside her artificial eye. Her ‘wish list’ for the camera back in 2011 included wireless capability, reaction to blinking to take still photos, zoom, focus and turn on and off, dilating the pupil with a change of light, infra-red and ultraviolet capability, geo-tagging, facial recognition, water-tightness, and looking realistic. The latest update on her blog Eye Tanya is positive and upbeat, but does make clear that working with such technology takes time, and more time than originally expected!

And that may be the take-home message from all the hype. It’s all very exciting, but it does take time. Time to develop, time to licence, and then time to persuade users that it will be worthwhile. The examples included here are very much about users who have tried out all available options, and have nothing to lose by trying something new. And hopefully their adoption of this new technology will encourage others, because the benefits could be extraordinary.


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