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Skin sensors could improve elderly, community, prenatal health

Skin-integrated wearable sensors may provide cost-effective new ways for patients to be monitored in the comfort of their own homes while offering a promising future for broader applications, bioengineering professor Todd Coleman, SM ’02, PhD ’06, said Oct. 7 at the MIT System Design and Management conference.

Coleman, director of the Neural Interaction Lab at the University of California, San Diego, focuses his research on sensors, their practical medical applications, and potential future uses to encourage healthier lifestyles in society.

Coleman was co-director of a research team at the University of Illinois that first produced the pliable temporary sensors — small patches of tattoo-like circuitry that are rubbed into the skin to monitor body temperature, electrical signals, heart activity, and muscle activity.

Coleman gave a brief description of the technology, how it’s been used in clinical trials involving pregnant women, and how it might someday be used. For instance, he said, sensors could transmit body signals to the wearer’s mobile phone and up to the cloud.

“If you think of the developing world, where mobile phone usage is high, you can think about opportunities where information can be relayed to a doctor thousands of miles away who can access the information and provide advice,” Coleman said.

Another population that could benefit from the sensors, he said, is the elderly.

“As we age, we become more injury-prone,” Coleman said. It’s very important that we determine whether we are engaging in injury-prone postures and behaviors, and if so, to be notified of that as rapidly as possible.”

Coleman said he sees a particularly useful application for sensors in poorer communities. He cited a recent study in a community in Pittsburgh that found that the use of wearable health devices produced significant health improvements among participants—but only after churches became involved to sanction it.

“It’s not enough just to think about these technological innovations connecting the patient to the doctor wirelessly,” he said. “It also means working with trusted community partners. We need these human components of how to go about doing this.”

One problem that could be addressed with the aid of skin sensors is the high rate of premature births among African-American women: 19 percent, compared with 10 percent for white women, Coleman said.

When babies are born prematurely, they usually end up in hospitals’ neonatal intensive care units.

“It’s one of the most expensive places in a hospital,” Coleman said. “They charge an arm and a leg. So the more babies you can keep out of the neonatal intensive care unit, it’s just a huge savings. That’s just another example of how targeting these underserved communities and being savvy can translate into making and saving money.”

Coleman predicted that when skin sensors are ready for broad-scale production, there will be a market for them. He said representatives of Kaiser Permanente, the managed-care consortium, are interested in the technology’s potential as an illness-prevention tool.

“As much as we might think that serving poorer communities is something that just makes us feel good, there’s really an opportunity here to make an impact, save lives, and save money,” he said.

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