Wearable medical monitoring “smart” devices that monitor vital signs, track medication use, and enable follow-up of patients after surgical procedures have become commonplace. These devices, which can be in the form of rings, watches, glasses, and clothing with embedded sensors, have created novel ways to manage diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, among other medical problems.
Wearable inventor Xuanhe Zhao, PhD, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, Massachusetts, said wearable devices such as continuous glucose monitors and electrocardiography monitors are making a significant impact on medical practice, especially in the field of digital and precision medicine. “We hope wearable imaging platforms, such as bioadhesive ultrasound (BAUS) for imaging diverse deep organs, will further impact this field,” Dr Zhao said.
He and his colleagues have developed a novel stamp-sized ultrasound adhesive that produces clear images of the heart, lungs, and other internal organs. The device sticks to skin and can provide continuous ultrasound imaging of internal organs for 48 hours.1,2
Currently, ultrasound imaging requires bulky equipment mainly available only in hospitals and physicians’ offices. Wearable ultrasound monitors could be applied to patients in the hospital in a manner similar to heart-monitoring electrocardiography stickers, and could continuously image internal organs without requiring a technician to hold a probe in place.
The researchers applied the ultrasound stickers to volunteers and showed that the devices produced high-resolution images of major blood vessels and deeper organs such as the heart, lungs, and stomach. The stickers maintained strong adhesion and captured changes in underlying organs as volunteers performed various activities, such as sitting, standing, jogging, and biking.
Dr Zhao’s team envisions ultrasound patches adhering to different locations on the body and communicating with a smartphone, where artificial intelligent algorithms would analyze the images on demand.
“One of the biggest challenges will be the translation and commercialization of the BAUS devices,” Dr Zhao said. “We do hope the BAUS devices can be translated in the next 3 to 5 years. The initial applications will be inside hospitals, where the BAUS platform can provide long-term continuous imaging of patients undergoing physical tests, such as running on a treadmill. In the future, we do hope the BAUS devices can become wearable consumer-electronic devices similar to Apple watch or Fitbit bands.”
Another innovator of wearable medical technologies is Rose Faghih, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at NYU Tandon School of Engineering in New York, New York. Dr Faghih and colleagues have developed algorithms for a technology they call MINDWATCH that monitors electrodermal activity (EDA), a measure of brain activity related to emotional status, and estimates the internal emotional arousal. Internal stresses caused by pain, exhaustion, or a hectic schedule can cause changes in EDA that correlate directly with mental states.3 The technology will eventually provide nudges that help return patients to a more neutral state of mind. For example, if a person is experiencing severe work-related stress, MINDWATCH could pick up on this and automatically play some relaxing music.
“Widespread use of wearables can eventually help detect early signs of deteriorating health in everyday life to hopefully reduce hospitalizations and costs of healthcare in the long-term,” Dr Faghih said.
She also observed, “For wearables to be widely used in medical practice, privacy-preserving HIPAA compliant data storage and transmission systems for wearable devices need to be included to keep the patient data safe.”
Dr Faghih noted that lack of insurance coverage could be a barrier to greater use of wearable medical technologies. “To reduce the health care costs in the long-term using wearables, there is a need for insurance companies to come up with policies regarding making affordable wearables available to individuals and have incentives for everyday use of wearables as a part of routine health care,” she said.
Wearable technology in health care is being designed to complement a physician’s care, not replace it. Researchers have demonstrated how sensors that record movement patterns could help detect health problems in older adults, including depression, risk of falls, or cognitive impairment, at an early stage. In the future, such technologies could help adults age 65 and older to stay in their own homes for longer periods, thereby easing pressure on the health care system.4
- Wang C, Chen X, Wang L, et al. Bioadhesive ultrasound for long-term continuous imaging of diverse organs. Science. 2022;377 (6605):517-523. doi:10.1126/science.abo2542
- Ma Z, Bourquard C, Gao Q, et al. Controlled tough bioadhesion mediated by ultrasound. Science. 2022; 377 (6607):751-755. doi:10.1126/science.abn8699
- Amin R, Faghih R. Physiological characterization of electrodermal activity enables scalable near real-time autonomic nervous system activation inference. PLOS Comput Biol. 2022;18(7):e1010275 doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1010275
- Schütz N, Knobel SEJ, Botros A, et al. A systems approach towards remote health-monitoring in older adults: Introducing a zero-interaction digital exhaust. NPJ Digit Med. 2022;5(1):116. doi:10.1038/s41746-022-00657-y