Are Batteryless patches the future of healthcare?
The problem with healthcare as we know it can quite simply be understood as a problem of logistics - healthcare expertise and the people that need it are not able to be made to interface with one another in those moments where the interaction is likely to be the most fruitful. In short, it's a classic case of misallocated resources. The healthcare system is a tremendously massive, complex, and intricate beast - it is no mean feat what we have accomplished as a species in the field of medicine - the sheer amount of human effort and ingenuity it has taken to build such a vast repository of medical knowledge is mind-boggling. Furthermore, the ongoing challenges of dispensing sensible therapeutic interventions using this immense body of knowledge are numerous and herculean.
Healthcare has evolved a lot over the years - even those among us that are not doctors can attest to this fact - technology, much like it does with all other domains of human life, has left an indelible mark on medicine. The object of this piece is to try and envision the way healthcare will evolve in the next few years.
The age of IoT
We live in the golden age of technology - the information age has ushered in possibilities that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. The internet of things has laid the foundation for the information age's next quantum leap - IoT technology has brought the power of the internet to all manner of objects, situations, and applications - far from requiring a device from a traditionally narrow band of applicable options, IoT has got the internet to shed its shackles and really break free.
Today, in all likelihood, your air conditioner, refrigerator, television set, car stereo, and even your shoes can be connected to the internet. This is in no small part due to the massive advances we have made in semiconductor technology. Today, we are able to manufacture reliable sensors for a fraction of the cost from just a decade or two ago.
This widespread proliferation of smart devices has been really exciting to watch - IoT technology has left large-scale disruption in its wake - across several industries and verticals, IoT-based smart technology has really made a huge and possibly epochal impact.
The Internet of Medical Things
As we've said several times in the past, it is really only through use-cases that we can understand the sheer scope of IoT technology; the tremendous promise that it holds can only be comprehended if we examine the various ways in which it is being used around us.
When we understand how smart technology and the large-scale, real-time data processing that it enables are revolutionizing, say how our food is grown or the way we are able to track consignments in real-time, we begin to get a sense of how powerful and promising IoT technology is.
Similarly, the potential applications of IoT-enabled connected technology within healthcare have garnered significant interest among policymakers and onlookers alike.
The Internet of Medical Things, as it's called, or IoMT for short has fast become one of the most hotly followed verticals within the IoT world. The reasons are probably not that hard to understand - Firstly, we all want better healthcare - it is a field that is quite tangibly a part of all our lives. We all have a stake in one way or the other. Moreover, it is a field that is in dire need of disruption.
The ongoing pandemic has exposed just how sub-optimally our healthcare systems are organized and how close to utter collapse they are at any given moment in time. Healthcare is this ungainly monster that has grown so rapidly that we haven't been able to optimize and organize from the ground up using first principles thinking.
This is where IoT comes in.
Lots of applications
The world of IoMT involves a lot of different sectors - imaging and diagnosis, hospital management, patient home care, doctor-patient communication systems and so on.
For the purposes of this article, we are interested in technologies that enable a more seamless and holistic approach to caring for patients. The traditional model that assumes that a person needs to visit a hospital or a surgery to get healthcare is being seriously challenged by recent breakthroughs in health technology. IoT is paving the way for healthcare establishments to extend the scope of their care beyond their physical locations and really enter into a symbiotic partnership with their patients.
As a result, there has been enormous interest in this area from scientists and investors alike. The IoT market is already worth a staggering $150 Billion. This is only set to grow exponentially in the near future.
Batteryless Smart Patches
The thermometer - think about this humble device that we're all familiar with. You don't need to be a doctor to know that the mercury thermometer has been with us for a long, long time. Very little has changed in the way we use thermometers over the last 100 years - yes, there have been digital thermometers, infrared temp-guns and the like, but in essence, it is fair to say that the thermometer hasn't really evolved much for a long time now.
Now imagine a discrete patch that sticks onto your skin - a patch that looks no different from a band-aid. Today, we have technology that enables us to stash a super-tiny microcontroller (MCU) into this plaster and open up a tremendous range of functionality - thanks to connected technology, we can equip this discrete plaster-looking object with state of the art semiconductor technology - This is accomplished through the use of a cutting-edge technology known as energy harvesting - our very own ONiO.zero is an MCU that utilizes energy harvesting to charge itself (RF, solar, piezo, thermal, kinetic)- i.e., it's completely batteryless, with the end user oblivious to its presence.
Now, this batteryless sensor can interface with the larger web, sending and receiving packets of information. Coming back to our thermometer conundrum, a patch like this equipped with a temperature sensor and a batteryless MCU could make for an exponential improvement on a thermometer's range of functionality - a continuous monitoring patch like this could relay multiple readings of your body temperature, in real-time, to your smartphone. That can be invaluable information as far as your doctor is concerned. Or if you're just a health nut who can get nerdy about running sophisticated health analytics on yourself just for the fun of it, you could really have a ball with that kind of access to data.
This, in a nutshell, is what we're trying to explore at ONiO. The fever patch example is just one of many ways in which we think batteryless IoT technology can change the way we gather patient data.
What else can we do with batteryless IoT patches, you ask?
Continuous glucose monitoring is a notable example - Diabetes is one of the deadliest diseases in the world, affecting millions worldwide. It is estimated that it claimed about 1.5 million lives globally in the year 2019. A huge number of people around the world have to live with this incurable disease - the only hope that we can offer these patients is that with the appropriate lifestyle modifications, assiduous follow-up, and some skilled medical intervention, diabetes can be managed quite successfully.
Now, this is far easier in theory than in practice - in reality, diabetics have a lot to contend with - they are essentially required to conduct the entirety of their lives around their diabetes - keeping strict meal schedules, constantly titrating the dosages of their medication, scheduling doctor visits, etc - if you're the type of diabetic who needs insulin shots, your quality of life is all the more directly impacted by the disease.
Diabetes requires a lot of back and forth between the patient and the doctor - because of the uniquely multifarious nature of the condition, a lot of trial and error is involved in figuring out the right treatment plan for a particular patient. Typically, patients have to meticulously take a whole lot of blood sugar readings at various times and in various physiological states in order for their doctor to best understand their therapeutic needs.
This can be a huge hassle using pre-IoT technology - the patient will have to prick themselves a whole bunch of times - and that is considering they didn't just jump off the treatment bandwagon altogether. This is where a technology like CGM (continuous glucose monitoring) can be invaluable - with CGM; we're talking about an IoT-enabled smart device that tracks your blood sugar levels in real-time and gives you access to detailed trends and analytics.
The unique value propositions that such a device brings to the table are manifold and significant - firstly, the device dramatically slashes the pain factor, which is huge in how people respond to a product or service. Secondly, such a device offers so much more than traditional modalities in terms of data - thanks to modern technological standards such as AI and energy harvesting, we are now able to cheaply and reliably build systems that are super-tiny, discrete, and offer you access to analytics that even pro-athletes didn't have access to just a few years ago.
Remote monitoring for the win
Remote monitoring, as enabled by connected health technologies such as smart patches, represents a watershed moment in the history of modern healthcare. These technologies allow the patient to be an active participant rather than a passive onlooker in the maintenance of their own health.
Smart health technologies enable patients to take charge of their health in a way that has never been possible before - Today, thanks to these devices and the allied systems that are being widely put in place, patients have access to a tremendous level of insight into the functioning of their own bodies.
Apple watch is a hugely popular and notable example that illustrates this very fact - devices like apple watch and others in the overcrowded consumer wearables and trackers space allow users to monitor certain parameters of their physiology in real-time. This allows them to make better dietary decisions, plan more effective exercise routines and in our case, seek timely medical help.
There have been numerous testimonials from users of apple watch that claim that they owe their lives to the timely notifications that their smart devices sent them about an impending health crisis - maybe these stories are few and far between now - but they indicate that there is major paradigm shift that is currently underway in the world of medicine.
Remote monitoring allows the patient to feel secure in the knowledge that a pair of eyes is watching over them even if their doctor is physically distant from them. Especially in cases where a lot of hands-on care is required around the clock, these devices can be incredibly useful. Costs associated with healthcare are rising in most parts of the world - a lot of patients who suffer from chronic diseases simply can't afford to spend weeks at a time in hospital. Remote monitoring using smart IoT health devices is a huge boon for these kinds of patients.
True to the term "connected health", these technologies allow for a deeper and more resilient connection between the patient and the healthcare setup - one that delivers more times than not.
Just the tip of the iceberg
Continuous temperature monitoring and continuous glucose monitoring are no doubt exciting examples of connected health technology. These possibilities, although they sound futuristic, are very much a reality of the world around us today.
But the true potential of IoT in healthcare is simply orders of magnitude bigger than just these kinds of devices. With our burgeoning data processing abilities and the widespread, global proliferation of high-speed mobile data, we are witnessing the beginning of a healthcare revolution that is poised to make a huge impact on the way we go about taking care of our sick.
With connected health solutions such as batteryless patches, we may be seeing the advent of a new era in healthcare where machines and humans work together in order to produce the best possible outcomes for the most number of people.