Sep 26, 2022

13 min read

Here’s how wireless sensors are making healthcare devices smarter

When we step into the doctor’s office - there are a few things we go in expecting to see. We expect to see a stethoscope - for sure, a thermometer of some kind or another - Maybe a BP measuring device? A bunch of dressing and suturing materials? These instruments have, for better or worse, been unchanged in their functionality and design for the longest time. In this article, we thought we’d explore some of the ways in which IoT technology and batteryless sensors are being used in traditional healthcare devices.

The Internet of Things in 2022

None of us are strangers by this point to the tremendous power that IoT holds in being able to transform our everyday lives. Most of us are familiar with consumer-oriented IoT technology such as smartwatches, smart ACs, fitness trackers, and the like. 

Be it in our cars or our clothing, sensors now rule the world in which we live. Tiny, wireless IoT sensors are now being designed into all manner of everyday products - what’s more?  Billions of dollars in investment capital are flowing into the sector as more and more large businesses try to get in on the action. 

Smarter Technologies

IoT enables a huge amount of innovation that would not have been possible otherwise. The modern technological milieu - what with big data, neural webs, machine learning, 5G, and energy harvesting sensors - has made for some seriously rapid acceleration and innovation. 

In just the last ten years, we’ve come up with some pretty robust and scalable IoT-based solutions that have dramatically transformed entire industries. 

For instance, today, we take it for granted that pretty much everything in our homes - all our appliances, devices, etc. - should be able to interface with the internet freely - that’s the Internet of Things, in a nutshell.  

Medical Devices of The Future

The global IoMT (Internet of medical things) market is expected to see some seriously explosive growth. The market cap of healthcare-oriented IoT products is expected to top $400 Billion in the next 3 years!

We thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the coolest wireless sensor-based medical devices out there - 

We spoke about the stethoscope at the start - let’s take a look at how modern tech has given this eminently recognisable medical instrument a modern twist.

Meet the smart stethoscope

Medical devices are being forced to contend with the upgrade cycle - just like the rest of them. 

The first modern stethoscope was the brainchild of a 19th-century French doctor by the name of Rene Laennec - he used rolled-up sheets of paper to amplify his patients’ chest and breathing sounds. Soon afterward, he managed to put together a more sophisticated version of the same design using wood instead of paper. 

Modern-day stethoscopes may have come quite a way from the time of Lennaec - however, the essential design has more or less remained the same for a long time now. 

This is changing. Big time. 

But before that - isn’t it very curious that no significant quantum-leap has occurred in medical auscultation devices in so long - why is that?  Well, one reason is probably that physicians of today are longer as skilled or well-trained in the art of auscultation - modern-day doctors have come to take imaging modalities like CT scans, MRI scans, etc for granted. Additionally, they also have a slew of other modern diagnostic tools like echocardiography. Understandably, this means that there isn’t a compelling incentive to master the arduous skill of auscultating patients with a stethoscope. 

This was highlighted in a 1997 study that showed that an embarrassingly large percentage of US physicians and medical students could not identify more than 10 distinct auscultation signs indicative of common heart-related conditions. 

Young doctors of today have a lot on their plates - what with the endless amount of time they need to spend updating their electronic patient records - this is robbing today’s young medical practitioners of the incredible learning opportunities that come with spending lots of time near their patients. 

Anyway, getting back on track. Engineers at Johns Hopkins University have decided that the stethoscope is getting a makeover, whether it likes it or not. 

They have come up with a device that uses digital sensing technology and another nifty modern-day tech to aid in clinical diagnosis. A stethoscope that, augmented by AI, can help young physicians make sure that they are coming up with the right answers to the demands being posed by their ward calls.

This “smart stethoscope” is today being used across the world, especially in resource-poor practice settings - notably in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Practicing medicine in low-resource settings can be incredibly difficult - misdiagnoses happen much more often than in centers that are better equipped. 

But it is exactly in these centers that the stethoscope is vital - often, expensive diagnostic tools are simply not available - and the doctor is placed in a position where diagnoses are often made with only a stethoscope for assistance. 

The Johns Hopkins smart stethoscope has a bunch of really cool features - For one - it comes fitted with a microphone and an onboard IoT microcontroller. The IoT sensor allows the stethoscope to interface with the internet in real-time. This means that in addition to functional features such as sound augmentation, ambient noise cancellation, and adaptive signal analysis, this IoT-powered smart stethoscope also comes with some powerful AI analytics. 

There are other electronic stethoscopes in the market - let’s call them “pre-IoT-era electronic stethoscopes” - these have sound-amplification technology too - they can help with ambient noise cancellation and sound amplification - but when you add an IoT chip to the mix, now you have a device that truly represents a quantum leap in terms of innovation and functionality.

The JHU engineers who created the smart stethoscope, Dr.Elhiali and Dr.West are really excited about the fact that their innovation can potentially solve a number of key problems.

As our smart stethoscope has a programmable platform, we’re now working to develop additional apps that would make it a multipurpose tool, useful for many diseases and scenarios,” the developers explain. “We think it could be useful in diagnosing heart failure and various gut disorders, and we’re collaborating with cardiologists and gastroenterologists to collect training data and design algorithms. 

- Dr.Elhiali and Dr.West, JHU Engineers

This seems to be a recurrent theme of sorts for IoT devices - whether they are medical devices or not. IoT devices today are keen to make use of the power of open-source in order to truly deliver the end-user a bespoke and multi-functional product. 

The Hopkins’ smart stethoscope is now widely being tested in the field - in various locations around the world such as the United States, Malawi, Peru, and Bangladesh. 

Smart Bandages

A team of engineers from Tufts University has come up with bandages that can do way more than just act as a physical barrier. 

This prototype bandage boasts a number of futuristic capabilities such as being able to measure pH and temperature using batteryless sensors - in order to aid the process of wound healing. 

Non-healing ulcers and wounds can be major detriments to quality of life.  Millions of people around the world today are struggling with long-standing wounds - An increasingly sedentary lifestyle means that we are more susceptible than ever to diseases like diabetes, which among a host of other problems, causes delayed wound healing. 

Non-healing wounds and ulcers represent a major cost for healthcare systems worldwide - it is estimated that non-healing chronic wounds cost the US healthcare system about $28 billion annually.

Bandages have traditionally been a very passive form of treatment - now, with this IoT-based innovation, the Tuft team set out to change that very fact - their initial idea was to create a bandage that would do more than just wait for the body to heal itself - i.e it would play an active role in augmenting or supporting the healing process. 

“We’ve been able to take a new approach to bandages because of the emergence of flexible electronics,” said Sameer Sonkusale, Ph.D. professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University’s School of Engineering and corresponding co-author for the study. “In fact, flexible electronics have made many wearable medical devices possible, but bandages have changed little since the beginnings of medicine. We are simply applying modern technology to an ancient art in the hopes of improving outcomes for an intractable problem.”

Dr.Sameer Sonkusale is not the first person to credit their invention to the emergence of reliable, low-cost flexible microelectronics - Most of the innovations that we are witnessing today across various fields are being made possible by flexible, batteryless IoT microelectronics. 

Wounds heal through many complex processes that are very precisely coordinated by the body. The rate at which a wound heals depends on a number of factors - firstly, there is the pH of the wound - normally, wounds heal best at a pH of 5.8-6.5 whereas non-healing ulcers typically show a pH reading over well over this range. Temperature is another factor that the team chose to focus on - the rationale being that being able to measure the temperature of a wound in real-time can provide useful data about the amount of inflammation the injury is causing. 

The smart bandages created by the team come with both pH and temperature sensors - meanwhile, Sonkusale has already begun work on another parallel project where the bandages will also be able to measure levels of oxygenation, in addition to pH and temperature. These sensors form the data-gathering arm of the device. 

Just like we saw with the stethoscope, these smart bandages are equipped with a modern microprocessor that can crunch the data gathered by the wireless sensors and can release pre-determined quantities of a certain antibiotic drug, when it sees that the factors being tracked are not in a range conducive for healing. 

The smart bandage we created, with pH and temperature sensors and antibiotic drug delivery, is really a prototype for a wide range of possibilities. One can imagine embedding other sensing components, drugs, and growth factors that treat different conditions in response to different healing markers.

- Dr.Sameer Sonkusale

This is yet another example of how the massive potential of batteryless IoT sensors is being used to design solutions that are downright futuristic.

Asthma management in the age of IoT

Smart inhalers have emerged as another well-recognized example of how modern-day wireless sensors are altering the landscape of medical devices. 

The CDC claims that about 30-70% of all diagnosed Asthma patients in America have problems staying on top of their treatment strategies. Non-compliance is a major issue that plagues healthcare systems worldwide - the costs are simply too huge to ignore. 

It is against this background that devices like smart asthma inhalers make sense - they make it easy for the patient to keep track of their inhaler use and make sure that they are given all the assistance possible to make sure that they take the right dose of the right medication, every time they need to. 

Smart inhalers typically use wireless sensors to detect use - it records this usage in the backend. The user can then access this information through a mobile app in order to stay up-to-date on their regimens. Some devices even allow users to check their ambient air quality in real-time, issuing timely warnings in case of potentially harmful situations. 

Most importantly, these inhalers alert users when they leave their inhalers behind - the biggest reason why people don’t comply with their asthma prescriptions. When a user leaves his inhaler behind, the smart inhaler sends a notification to his phone alerting him. 

These smart inhalers are able to collect enormous amounts of fine, granular data on the duration of asthma attacks, possible triggers, and causes - information that can go a long way towards helping practitioners make the best possible treatment decisions. 

Similarly, there has been a lot of buzz in the healthcare industry about “smart pill boxes” that can employ the same basic framework of wireless sensor integration in order to help elderly and other at-risk patient groups with prescription compliance. 

Driving useability and functionality

All this was merely to try and convey an idea of how much innovation is happening in the healthcare space right now, thanks to wireless sensor technology. 

These were examples of a few innovative solutions that are gathering traction recently - however, the true scope of IoT technology in this field is immense. 

Only time will tell which of these innovations will truly stand the test of time and which ones end up being celebrated fads.

About the author

Abishek Swaminathen

Senior Content Manager

Abishek is ONiO’s senior content manager. A medical doctor by profession, he stumbled onto a writing career almost by accident, as it were. Words have enthralled Abishek since the day he first held a book and at ONiO, he channels his inner wordsmith towards providing our subscribers with regular doses of fun and informative content.

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