Wearable technology was huge at CES - the BBC even called it a revolution...

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Wearable technology was huge at CES - the BBC even called it a revolution, and whilst this is an area that is growing in popularity and advancing at a rate of knots, the type of technology being developed by those at chip manufacturer Qualcomm, aiming to enable a two week warning of a heart attack, is unfortunately not yet commonplace. Here, Professor Christopher James, Chair of the IEEE UKRI Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society (EMBS) Chapter and Professor of Healthcare Technology at the University of Warwick talks about is the type of tech that is currently available, and some of the enabling factors that can help the futuristic wearable healthcare technology solutions to become a reality.

Scientists have harvested energy from a guinea pig’s inner ear and used it to power a small wireless transmitter

Scientists have harvested energy from a guinea pig’s inner ear and used it to power a small wireless transmitter

Re-purposing Smartphone technology

Much of the technology that we’re seeing in the mHealth space at the moment uses existing technology such as the miniaturised chips found in Smartphones as a starting point. Smartphones have advanced to such a level that the technology is now ripe for repurposing. Google glasses are a great example of this and fellow IEEE member Dr Kevin Curran has discussed this in more detail in his blog, “Smarter Than Your Smartphone: Are “Google Goggles” the Next Big Thing in Tech?”.

What we are also seeing is hardware add-ons for Smartphones which can in theory transform them into medical devices. Things like adding an extra lens to the camera on an iPhone to look at blood samples, and even using cameras to measure heart rate. This raises a few big questions – compliance is a huge issue in the healthcare space; anyone can add technology to a Smartphone but does that make it a certified medical device?

Self diagnosis is another big issue. Googling a headache is a dangerous game and can lead to all sorts of web-doctor diagnoses, and if non-medically trained people were to start using this technology to check their own health, the risks of misdiagnosis are enormous, creating unnecessary worry.

Temporary technology inside the body

As well as technology that can be worn outside of the body, research into technology that could be temporarily placed inside the body is advancing too. Another IEEE member, Antonio Espingardeiro, has written about nano-robots inside the bloodstream on Urban Times recently, talking about the potential for cancer treatment that these could give.

An area that I find particularly interesting is what some call, “digital medication”. Digestible microchips gained FDA approval last summer and aim to help with medication compliance. A patient not taking prescribed medication is a big problem in the healthcare arena and these little chips hope to enable accurate tracking of whether or not patients are keeping on top of their medication.

The chips react with chemicals in the stomach and produce a slight voltage which can be picked up by a patch that the patient wears. This patch then transmits that data to a doctor or carer. The real genius here is that flushing pills down the toilet won’t produce the signal, which is where old technology like smart pillboxes were limited.

Long-term technology inside the body

Now this is an area that I mentioned wasn’t quite commonplace yet, and there’s a good reason for that. As with most futuristic technology these days, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is power. How do you keep something that is inside the body powered? Batteries need replacing, and whilst kinetic charging, such as that found in some watches, can work for certain implantable technology such as cochlear implants, research is under way into how chemicals that are already present in the body can be used to power devices of this sort.

This could be the breakthrough that implanted technology needs. If we can harvest the energy for these technologies from inside our own bodies then who knows what the future could look like.