In the last few decades, the healthcare industry has developed tremendously and thanks to the increasing use of modern information and communication technology solutions in the healthcare delivery, people's access to affordable and quality care has never been better. A relatively modern concept in healthcare delivery is the empowerment of patients to self-monitor their conditions and increase the level of patient engagement in health management. This has been made possible by state of the art monitoring devices that not only increase the participation of the patients in managing their own health conditions but also allows healthcare providers to remotely monitor the vital physiological signs of their patients (Hayakawa et al., 2013). Recent research studies have clearly indicated that empowered patients who actively participate in their health management enjoy better treatment outcomes and for the same, better quality of life (Dobkin and Dorsch, 2011). However, the massive progress in the healthcare sector has brought about some unique challenges concerning uniform healthcare access for all. People today are living longer and healthier lives and as a result the stress on the healthcare resources has increased manifold (Muennig and Glied, 2010). Thanks to excellent medical capabilities, people with severe trauma are able to recover fast but at the same time this has also increased patients with disabilities, thereby increasing the burden on the already overstressed healthcare industry (Goonewarde et al., 2009). The recent healthcare reforms in the United States under the initiative of the Obama administration were aimed at increasing affordable healthcare outreach to greater sections of the population and according to Axelrod et al., this alone will add more than 32 million patients to existing healthcare system (Axelrod, Millman and Abecassis, 2010). These developments have presented a number of challenges in front of the care providers and all of them concerns easy access to affordable healthcare. This is where the relevance of modern information and communication technologies becomes apparent once again. At present there are technologies available that can greatly increase the outreach of affordable care to not just the underprivileged but also to those living in remote far-flung corners of the world. These innovative healthcare delivery paradigms not only improve diagnostics and ensure time-sensitive intervention but can also significantly increase patient participation and empowerment. Wearable sensor technology is one such innovation that has got the potential to revolutionize healthcare delivery and access in both the developed and developing regions of the world. The wearable sensors or devices that are available today can accurately monitor vital physiological and biochemical signs of the patients and transmit the data remotely to the healthcare providers. As a result, care providers can ensure better diagnosis, treatment and management of serious chronic conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and asthma to name a few (Bonato, 2010).
Building blocks of wearable sensor technology:
Wearable sensor technology has three major components dedicated to performing different functions. The data collection component collects vital physiological, biochemical and movement data through the use of dedicated wearable sensors. The communication component is dedicated to transmitting the data collected from the first component to the healthcare provider. The third component is dedicated to analysing the data received from the sensors remotely so that intelligent decisions could be made rapidly for efficient management of patient health conditions. Figure 1 below presents a schematic representation of the working principle of wearable sensor technology paradigm available today (Patel et al., 2012).
Fig1: Wearable sensor technology paradigm
The sensors pick up vital physiological and movement data from the individual wearing them and transmit the same to a remote server managed by the healthcare provider. The wearable sensors make use of the mobile network or the broadband internet network to transmit the data within seconds and when critical emergency interventions become necessary, care can be provided in a highly time-sensitive manner. A wide range of wearable sensor devices are available that can be deployed on the basis of specific clinical requirements. Sensor devices that monitor the heart rate would be ideal for patients suffering from chronic heart conditions and sensors that capture movement data could be used to keep track of the movement of individuals such as stroke patients who are on the path to gaining back their mobility. Some of the common forms of wearable sensors available in the market include accelerometers, gyroscopes and smart fabrics (Chan et al., 2012). Out of these, accelerometers are perhaps the most widely used devices that not just capture movement but also provides an accurate assessment of physical activity (Yang and Hsu, 2010). Two important qualities of wearable sensor devices that can significantly influence end-user acceptance are flexibility and comfort. While majority of the sensor devices available today are worn by the users, some can also be attached to their clothes (Montgomery-Downs, Insana and Bond, 2011). Sensors can also be integrated to different wearable accessory items such as belts, buckles, rings and pins and all of them are well capable of monitoring and collecting vital physiological data such as heart rate, body temperature and blood oxygen saturation levels. (Simone et al., 2007).
Trends in the wearable sensor device market:
Wearable sensor devices are currently creating a lot of buzz in the healthcare and electronic markets and all the major consumer electronic corporations such as Apple, Samsung and Xiaomi are making a beeline to get a slice of the market that is projected to reach $95 billion by the year 2020. As far the wearable devices are concerned, gadgets such as smart watches, smart glasses and smart cloth items are projected to become highly sought after by the year 2019. Corporations such as Samsung have invested heavily in smartwatch technology in the recent years but they have failed to create the anticipated stir in the market. Apple corporation has recently released their Apple watch device with lots of fanfare and they had projected a sales figure of around 20 million units by the end of the year 2015 (PRNewswire, 2015). The highly sophisticated Apple iWatch can keep a track of the movement of the wearer during the day and can even create an alarm if it senses too much of idle sitting time (Rettner, 2015).
Similarly, electronic giant Samsung has entered into a collaboration with Medtronic to create technological solutions that will monitor and collect data from patients receiving neuromodulatory therapies. The data will be analysed in real time by the healthcare providers and it is anticipated that management and treatment will improve significantly (Rhew, 2015). Not to be left behind, Philips and Accenture are also coming together to develop a wearable solution for the benefit of the patients suffering from degenerative neurological conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The Emotiv technology based solution is well-poised to greatly improve the quality of life of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis patients with no muscle control. The device has the ability to capture EEG brainwave data of the patients and understand the feelings and expressions of the patients, which can then be used to control and operate a wide range of connected Philips devices (Philips, 2016).
Benefits of wearable sensors devices:
A wide range of healthcare benefits can be derived from wearable sensor devices such as effective monitoring and management of chronic health conditions and a substantial increase in the outreach of affordable healthcare. When healthcare providers are able to monitor the physiological and biochemical data of their patients in real time they are able to provide better diagnosis and intervention and this greatly improves the treatment outcomes. Better treatment outcomes also mean less repeat visits to the hospital, thereby reducing the burden on the already overstretched healthcare resources. Research studies have already indicated that real time monitoring of patient data can significantly improve the management of critical health conditions such as congestive heart failure (Merilahti et al., 2009).
Wearable sensor devices can also serve as excellent monitoring utilities that can raise an alarm and notify the healthcare providers if there is a medical emergency. Utilities such as the Wellcore system make use of accelerometers to determine aspects such as body posture and movement and can immediately detect a fall and notify the connected healthcare centre in a highly time-sensitive manner (Preece, 2015).
Wearables devices have also created avenues for patient rehabilitation interventions in the comfort of their homes. This not only saves time and energy of the patient but also reduces the burden on the healthcare resources to a large extent. Philips has developed a home intervention device called the Stroke Rehabilitation Exerciser for the rehabilitation of stroke patients in the comfort of their homes. It includes a patient unit that that receives the exercise and mobility instructions from the physiotherapist. The patient follows these instructions and the sensors on the wearable device record every movement and transmit the data to the care provider in real time. After the analysis of the transmitted data if it appears that the patient is deviating from the instructions, the therapist can initiate the corrections remotely and ensure that the prescribed treatment is followed accurately (Lanfermann et al., 2007).
Another major benefit that can be derived from wearable sensor devices is early detection of disease symptoms. Early detection of symptoms can make a difference between life and death for patients suffering from critical conditions such as obstructive pulmonary disease. Early detection and intervention against episodes of obstructive pulmonary disease can prevent further deterioration of patient's condition and ensure that there is no debilitating function impairment. Early detection facilitates treatment at the initial stages of the disease condition and this can greatly reduce hospital and ICU admission rates (Patel et al., 2012).
With the advent of wearable sensor devices, patient monitoring and treatment interventions paradigms have undergone a revolutionary change. Wearables sensors devices available today not only just record the physiological signs and movements of the patients but can also scan the brainwaves and understand patient expressions and emotions. These developments seemed possible only in realms of science fiction just a few years back but today they are altering the way in which serious chronic conditions are managed and treated by the healthcare providers. The current trends indicate much greater involvement of patients in the care and management of their own health conditions and the main focus today is the empowerment of the patients. It is anticipated that wearable sensor devices will create a platform where care and the management of health conditions are equally distributed between the care provider and care receiver. Furthermore, the promise of wearable sensor devices can only be realized when doctors, engineers and all the major players from the digital electronics industry join hands to create innovative solutions for the benefit of the patients.
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