The COVID-19 pandemic is causing devastation across the globe—and could be a glimpse of what lies ahead with future contagions. For healthcare professionals on the front lines, having the right medical tools at their disposal is part of their arsenal to help treat patients. From traditional ventilators and ultrasound equipment to newer tools like biosensing wearables, each of these relies on a common underlying technology: semiconductors.
Companies designing and developing medical equipment are ramping up production of their products, especially in the face of this pandemic. They are counting on an array of semiconductor devices to help enable a range of sophisticated functions. Semiconductor manufacturers, in turn, are keeping the supply chain moving to help their customers meet these urgent demands.
While the capabilities that are now possible thanks to medical technologies are impressive, they also serve to highlight how these solutions can enable a more personalized model of healthcare. In this article, we’ll discuss five key ways in which today’s technologies—which include semiconductor devices at the core—can transform the way that we deliver healthcare to facilitate better outcomes:
- Enhanced predictive and preventative care
- Accurate testing
- Remote patient monitoring
- Subsequent monitoring
Catching Symptoms Before They Snowball
Key indicators uncovered by checking vital signs have long provided clues into the presence of illnesses. For many conditions, however, a periodic check during a doctor’s visit isn’t as revealing as having a continuous record of data. Consider hypertension as an example. Measuring blood pressure at rest, ideally at the same time each day, is the clinically recognized approach. But factors such as masked hypertension, when blood pressure is normal at the clinic but elevated at home, detract from the ability to accurately diagnose the condition. This is why continuous, real-time monitoring of blood pressure provides a more insightful picture of the patient. Assessment of asymptomatic COVID-19 patients can also benefit from continuous monitoring. Indicators that someone may be afflicted with the new coronavirus include:
- A temperature at or above 4°F
- A respiratory rate above 30 breaths per minute
- A heart rate above 100 beats per minute
- A blood-oxygen level (SpO2) of less than 93%
Biosensing wearables provide a convenient, noninvasive means to monitor these indicators and alert patients and their healthcare providers whether their conditions can be managed at home or at the hospital. With highly contagious respiratory viruses such as COVID-19, having the ability to remotely assess the severity of a patient’s condition can help healthcare providers triage their cases at the point of care.
Figure 1: Biosensing wearables that monitor health parameters such as blood-oxygen levels can help in the assessment of patients with respiratory viruses. (Photo courtesy of Yevhen Prozhyrko/Shutterstock)
Today’s sensor solutions measure various vital signs, including body temperature, heart rate, heart-rate variability, SpO2, and respiration. Sophisticated algorithms convert these signals into valuable insights for medical professionals. Sensor, power management, and battery management ICs that operate with low power consumption help extend battery life of the end product, while those that are highly integrated align with the space constraints of wearables.
Testing Holds the Key
Once a condition is suspected based on the indicators, a screening test can validate whether disease is present. For COVID-19, currently available tests examine specimen collected via nasal and throat swabs, while blood tests are conducted to detect the presence of antibodies. Semiconductors play a role in diagnostic equipment such as virus detection devices and analytical/laboratory equipment. Electrochemical sensor analog front-end (AFE) ICs are being integrated into wearable patches for continuous blood-glucose monitoring. Perhaps we’ll begin to see evaluation of these electrochemical devices for the detection of the presence of the new coronavirus.
We’re also seeing deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms in analyzing CT scans and chest x-rays of COVID-19 patients to determine pneumonia risks as well as examine for signs of the new coronavirus. Results have been greeted with mixed reactions due to accuracy, but more development in this area is on the way, including a recently launched collaboration between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
Remote Monitoring to Assess Disease Severity
After being diagnosed with a particular disease or condition, the patient goes into treatment mode. COVID-19 patients are either isolated or, in more serious cases, hospitalized. For those isolating at home, continuous monitoring of vital signs can be beneficial. The new coronavirus has behaved differently and even unpredictably from patient to patient. Remotely keeping close tabs on changes in temperature, respiratory and heart rate, and blood-oxygen levels via a wearable device can be a means to determine when a patient needs to get to a hospital.
Producing Components for Treatment Tools
While there is not yet a cure for COVID-19, doctors and nurses are applying infection prevention and control measures and, for patients with breathing difficulties, using respiratory tools. Ventilators, deployed in extremely serious cases, take on part or all of the effort of breathing, providing a mechanical means to move oxygen into the lungs and carbon dioxide out. These devices are experiencing a surge in demand during this pandemic. In response, semiconductor manufacturers are ramping up efforts to produce the components that play an integral role in ventilators, such as:
- Battery and power management ICs
- Analog-to-digital converters (ADCs)
- Digital-to-analog converters (DACs)
- Thermocouple-to-digital converters
- Audio codecs
- Real-time clocks
- Supervisory ICs
- Secure authenticators
Figure 2. Ventilators and temperature monitors have been among the in-demand medical equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Sirichai Saengcharnchai/Shutterstock)
Continuous Monitoring for Chronic Conditions
For many conditions—chronic ones, in particular—the follow-up plan involves subsequent monitoring. This presents another good opportunity for deployment of biosensing wearables. Today’s fitness trackers and wearables already monitor heart rate, heart-rate variability, and respiratory rate. Changes in these markers could indicate viral loading, so a wearable device that can passively and continuously harvest this data over a period of time can prove insightful.
In some COVID-19 cases, patients have exhibited heart arrhythmias. The presence of an irregular heartbeat can be detected by an electrocardiogram (ECG). Some hospitals are implementing continuous ECG monitoring, along with automated blood pressure readings and oxygen saturation monitoring, in place of the standard vital-sign checks typically performed by nursing staff. The intent of this approach is to reduce risks of transmitting the new coronavirus to healthcare workers, while also preserving personal protective equipment (PPE). Biopotential sensor ICs provide ECG waveforms and bioimpedance (BioZ) measurements with clinical-grade accuracy. Such ICs are small enough to be integrated into medical patches, wrist-worn devices, and chest-strap heart-rate monitors that can provide continuous, real-time data for patient assessments.
Toward a More Personalized Model of Healthcare
The strategy to contain the spread of COVID-19 involves increased testing and contact tracing to identify those who may have been exposed to an infected person. Technology will, no doubt, play an integral role in this laborious process. Already, Google and Apple have teamed up to develop a massive contract tracing platform that works on Android devices and iPhones. The software uses Bluetooth to detect and alert people who have come into close proximity with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. In another effort to pinpoint COVID-19 outbreaks, Scripps Research Translational Institute is conducting a study using wearables. DETECT (Digital Engagement & Tracking for Early Control & Treatment) monitors wearable users’ heart rate and also enables them to record symptoms such as coughing and fever. By analyzing patterns in a given region, researchers can determine whether that particular area might be suffering from an outbreak.
This pandemic has, no doubt, prompted drastic changes in all of our lives. Moreover, how the healthcare industry delivers care will likely not be immune to change—hopefully for the better. Through greater use of remote patient monitoring tools, for instance, healthcare providers (and patients alike) can keep closer tabs on their conditions without requiring unnecessary clinic visits. A more personalized, decentralized model of care could emerge from this. And semiconductor devices are poised to continue playing an integral role in enabling medical tools and equipment used across the entire spectrum of patient care.
|Andrew Baker is Managing Director, Healthcare Business Unit, Maxim Integrated. He joined Maxim Integrated in 2009 and has more than 20 years of experience in the electronics industry in roles ranging from development engineering to sales as well as business/product management. In his current role, he is responsible for leading Maxim’s wearable solutions initiatives for sensors and power management, as well as multiple other product lines. Andrew holds a Bachelor’s degree with honors in electronic engineering from the University of Portsmouth, UK.|