Medicine and healthcare is one thing that matters to every single person on the planet. We all, to a greater or lesser extent, care about our health — whether it is to attain peak fitness, look for early signs of an issue or monitor / manage a long-term health condition.
The healthcare sector is facing challenges in many countries, whether it is dealing with a growing population putting a strain on existing facilities or coping with restricted resources or the difficulties of recruiting and retaining qualified nursing staff and doctors. As such, in both the public and private sectors, cost control and efficiency are growing in importance alongside the primary goal of providing high-quality healthcare.
Another significant trend has been to move medicine to the point of care, meaning that activities such as long-term monitoring are being driven away from facilities such as hospitals and patients are being monitored in their homes and offices, wherever possible.
While this change is being driven by the need to free up resources such as hospital beds, the revolution in mobile medical devices is enabling the rapid pace of change. While many people are familiar with and use the popular ‘Fitbit’ type wearable devices, there are many more medical-grade devices available that allow for far more advanced monitoring and even automated treatment.
Far from ‘just’ monitoring activity and, for example, heart rate modern devices are seeking and using innovative ways to measure critical parameters that allow monitoring and more in-depth diagnosis of long-term and other conditions such as asthma, cancer, and diabetes, to name just a few.
While electronics and software are at the heart of most of the developments, by introducing nano-technology to the mix is providing some very significant, and exciting, advances.
One example of this is a new smart plaster that uses developments in nano-technology to measure skin hydration levels by detecting changes in the electrical characteristics of the skin. By embedding tiny wires into stretchable fabrics applied directly to the skin, small electrodes can monitor hydration and communicate that in real-time.
Similarly, by passing a tiny electrical current through cells, an impedance measurement can be performed, extending the capabilities of impedance spectroscopy. Similarly, by embedding the wires into bandages, creating so-called ‘smart bandages’ that can identify the formation of bedsores and other issues, even before they become visible to the human eye.
A collaboration between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) extends the concept to include the ability to automatically deliver medication in direct response to the progress of the wound. In this approach, medication is embedded in a gel that is placed inside the dressing. A microcontroller embedded in the dressing monitors the impedance measurement and controls the current supplied to heating wires that warm the gel as required, thereby releasing the medication to the affected area.
Pressure sores — such as bedsores are often a result of a lack of movement by a patient. By weaving sensors into the mattress or bedclothes, movement can be monitored remotely, and the patient can be advised to move – either by an alarm or by a nursing professional who is monitoring the system.
Further advancements in nano-technology will partner with electronics to deliver even better solutions in the future. Targeted treatment will benefit from nanoparticles that allow treatment at the cellular level, meaning that medication/drugs do not have to be metabolized and distributed around the body. This will deliver lower costs and more effective treatments but, more importantly, more effective treatment and lower dose levels that can reduce unwanted side effects.
Moving securely forward
There will be challenges moving forward. The security of connected mobile devices is a potential concern, especially with the highly sensitive and personal nature of the data being dealt with. Also, portability and convenience will remain a challenge as people demand devices that are battery powered (for portability and safety in patient-connect applications) yet sophisticated and powerful.
With the advanced semiconductor products and sensing devices that are reaching the market, we are confident that these challenges will be met and overcome and we will continue to see high levels of innovation in this incredibly important sector.
Rudy Ramos is the project manager for the Technical Content Marketing team at Mouser Electronics and holds an MBA from Keller Graduate School of Management. He has over 30 years of professional, technical and managerial experience managing complex, time-critical projects and programs in various industries including semiconductor, marketing, manufacturing, and military. Previously, Rudy worked for National Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, and his entrepreneur silk screening business.