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Medical electronics gets personal, goes mobile

Posted: 26 Feb 2013     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:medical devices  Vital signs monitoring  heart rate monitor 

The trend towards technology "personalisation" prevails, and it is heading into new areas. It began with personal computers in the 1980s, went on to desktop publishing, and has extended to our ubiquitous voice and data communications via smartphones. We are now seeing this trend branch into personal medicine and medical devices that are no longer confined to formal clinical settings or occasional use.

Vital signs monitoring (VSM) of individuals includes both those who have medical issues (remote health monitoring), as well as those who do not yet but are nonetheless concerned about their health and well-being (personal health management). Those who have medical issues want point-of-care monitoring and don't want to be "tied down", while those who are well are often on-the-go individuals, and expect their VSM to be a relatively transparent part of their daily lifestyle and routine.

We are entering an era where individuals want to monitor their vital signs at home, at work, in the car, at the gym, on the sports field, and more. With these new expectations come new challenges for system developers. The increasing level, diversity, and spread of VSM is due to a synergistic combination of improvements across multiple areas: sensors, analogue front ends, signal processing, and multiple wireless connectivity options. Many of these advances are driven by Moore's law and its corollaries, and are somewhat predictable, such as advances in highly capable, integrated analogue front ends.

The appearance and impact of MEMS devices as compact, easy-to-use, low-cost, high-performance sensors was not in the crystal balls of many industry forecasters and pundits. Consider this: what began as an application-specific, tightly focused sensor technology for one application–namely, automotive airbags–has spawned an incredibly diverse array of sensors and resultant applications including health and safety monitoring at clinical levels using personal venues.

The challenge for designers goes well beyond the electronics alone. Having these devices available and useful in so many diverse settings puts new demands on product packaging, materials, sensor interface, user interface, ease of use, reliability, run time, regulatory certification (in some cases) and, of course, cost.

Note that the use of these sensors in mass-market, consumer products affects more than just the obvious electronic-design challenges. Packaging and appearance must shift from just functional to esthetically acceptable and even fashionable, while still meeting the technical requirements. The "soft" design mandate to also be stylish adds yet another dimension to the engineer's list of product design challenges and constraints.

In addition, the in-use environment for these devices is less controlled, less respectful, and more varied than in static, clinical settings. Users may toss the devices, inadvertently abuse them, or get them dirty or wet, even when they are not designed for such handling. In addition, the devices often need to be designed to be used or worn 24/7 on the hip, wrist, upper arm, shoe, or elsewhere, and without battery-replacement or charging issues.

Common parameters yield to portable electronics
Let's start with basic fitness monitoring for individuals who like to know how they are doing in daily activities. This is general-health monitoring as opposed to the type of monitoring performed during strenuous sporting activities.

We want to measure, track, and even alarm physiological factors such as temperature, heart rate, motion/activity level, and perhaps exertion and overheating. This information can be used, in part, to determine health-related characteristics such as calorie burn, sleep profile and number of steps taken over a defined time period.

In order to achieve a level of efficacy that keeps them out of the "gadget" classification, the measurement devices need to take on the role of lifestyle monitors that are personalized to our individual needs. They must be devices that fit in to our way of life non-intrusively and deliver on their promise of providing useful, accurate data.

To do this, they use strategically located sensors to monitor vital signs such as skin temperature, galvanic skin response, motion, heart rate, calories burned, activity level, and exertion. Whether the user is sitting, walking, driving, sleeping, working, or working out, these body-mounted monitors reveal calories burned and much more. When combined with information about food intake (calories consumed), a profile of lifestyle and fitness is developed.

Supporting the needs of the professional and amateur sports enthusiast provides a tougher challenge to system developers. Measurements taken during inactivity or carrying out moderate tasks is challenging enough, but achieving the same level of accuracy, consistency, and credibility while running, swimming or generally being pounded on, requires significant additional post-processing of the data using sophisticated algorithms, to address and eliminate the many artifacts which result from such motion.

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