We've seen lots of activities in “wearables” and personal health/wellness devices of many types in the past year, with more to come. These small units can track pulse and respiration, cardiac waveforms, blood oxygen saturation (SpO2 ) level, and more.
All of the well-deserved attention that these useful medical and fitness products are getting, however, may be obscuring a bigger picture. Engineers, researchers, and scientists are combining advanced sensor types and technologies — along with complex analog and digital signal processing — to provide new insights into a variety of medical issues and to do so in a low- or no-risk, non-invasive way. A trio of recent stories showing such developments in prototype or evaluation stage was very revealing in showing the nature and sophistication of some of these developments via projects done as entries for a reputable design contest as well as university research.
For example, it's often vital to measure blood pressure, and there are many units that are fully autonomous: They pump up the cuff, release the pressure, capture the output signal from the cuff, and then apply signal-processing algorithms to extract the needed results on systolic and diastolic pressure — not a trivial task, given the range of pressure signals, unavoidable non-electrical noise on the signal, and other distortions. Then think about the challenge of continuously measuring blood pressure in real time without a need to stop, inflate, and deflate, which would be useful for ongoing monitoring.
That's the challenge that Bold Diagnostics, LLC, addressed as the winner of Tech Briefs “Create the Future 2016” contest in the medical category. The company's Continuous Wearable Blood Pressure Monitor uses Differential Pulse Arrival Time (DPAT) technology, which uses the fact that the pulse wave generated by the heart's contracting arrives at the right arm before the left arm because of an inherent delay created by the anatomy of the aortic arch.
This difference in arrival times is an indicator of blood pressure (Figure 1). Using this approach, they claim that they were able to achieve a strong correlation (±5 mm Hg) between the DPAT method and conventional testing of blood pressure in comparison to control measurements (Figure 2).
Another interesting entry and winner of an Honorable Mention citation was the Apnosystems Infant Care System (ICS), a therapeutic wearable for babies. This small, wearable system is designed to continuously monitor the SpO2 level of infants at risk (via optical pulse oximetry) to determine if they have stopped breathing due to their unstable airway conditions or other medical issues (Figure 3). If the system determines that SpO2 has dropped so low that this has occurred, immediate intervention is needed to prevent the serious consequences of lack of oxygen, including brain damage. Then, in addition to sending a Bluetooth-based alert to a smart phone, the system automatically provides mild, non-harmful transcutaneous electrical nervous stimulation — a small electrical “tingle” — which will rouse the infant and restart automatic breathing.
It's worth looking at the Top 100 entrants and the Grand Prize and Category winners to get a good sense of the range of innovation and “out-of-the-box” work being done; it’s very thought-provoking and even somewhat inspiring.