Wireless Health: A look ahead

Wireless Health: A look ahead

by Mehran Mehregany, Engineering Innovation at Case Western Reserve University


The convergence of sensing, connectivity, computing and social network technologies is fueling new possibilities in remote patient monitoring and treatment (referred to as wireless, digital or mobile health). Technology is only one part of a wireless health solution; it enables offering a service based on data gathered or stimuli administered. Another key part of wireless health solutions is a viable business model, i.e., who will pay and why. Looking ahead, device integration and business model innovation are key areas of evolution.

Many wireless health solutions today are based on one device, one application—naturally resulting in limited business model creativity. Multi-functional devices with multiple applications are few and far between in medical devices, but are emerging in consumer health. Regarding the latter, take for example activity monitors. They were initially step counters, from which they evolved into monitoring activities and now can measure heart rate. Smart watches expand the functionality of activity trackers to a new level. They integrate activity monitoring into what essentially amounts to a computer on the wrist. Additional health and wellness measurements (blood pressure and pulse oximetry) are on the horizon, both for smart watches and activity monitors.

A bottleneck of integration pace is that making additional desired measurements is limited by available technology. For example, it would be nice to monitor respiration, hydration and calorie intake with the same smart watch or activity monitor. However, the techniques to do so are not presently available. The former two measurements can be made readily with other devices worn on other parts of the body, however. A way around this problem is smart garments that integrate sensing, connectivity and computation strategically.  The garment can then provide multiple functionalities in a natural way.

Integration will be a driver of packing more functionality into smaller form factors. Such integration is possible because the converging technologies are rooted in microelectronics. They are manufacturing in fabrication processes that are generally compatible. Other contributors to enabling such integration are is low power design strategies and advances in battery technology. For garments, stretchable electronics and electronic textiles are additional contributing technologies.

Generally speaking, it is harder to make chemical and biological measurements with sensors due to sensitivity, selectivity, stability and reproducibility challenges. Even when promising sensors are developed, their integration into a practical monitoring platform (e.g., activity monitor, smart watch, smart garment, etc.) is challenging. The sensor needs access to the parameter being monitored, while it has to be protected from the surrounding environment—a difficult packaging problem. Nevertheless, the integration of chemical and biological sensors into health and wellness monitoring platforms will be on the rise.

Devices with multiple functionalities provide more opportunities for a broader set of services, which in turn enables more business model flexibility. To the extent that multiple functionalities produce more data sets, these data can be mined for different purposes and benefits—to each of which a specific business model may be attached.