Wireless Health Technology

by Manu Gandham

If you’ve ever seen someone wearing Google Glass, or a Nike Fuelband, or the Pebble Smartwatch, then you’ve witnessed the beginnings of wearable technology. As devices get smaller and lighter, people can start incorporating computers into clothes and fashion accessories. Being in contact with bodies 24/7 enables these devices to do something truly useful: monitor one’s health.

Health monitoring technology is not a new field. However, Bluetooth wireless communication technology has become much more energy-efficient, allowing the creation of devices that can be left turned on all the time. These devices can gather information about one’s health throughout the day, and then send that information to one’s smartphone regularly.

But what can these devices really tell individuals about their health? It depends on what kinds of sensors are being used. Most health monitoring devices on the market today exist as “smart-watches:” devices worn on a wrist as one would wear a watch. The most common sensor currently in these devices is the accelerometer.

Accelerometers gather data about movement. Using computational algorithms, smartwatches with accelerometers can tell individuals exactly how active they were throughout the day, which allows them to monitor and track their levels of fitness and set goals for themselves.

Heart rate sensors are also used in some devices. In addition to measuring one’s cardiovascular fitness and helping one work out safely and effectively, heart rate sensors can also make guesses about one’s mood and stress levels. This could allow one’s smartphone to act like a true personal coach: pushing when it can tell that one isn’t working hard enough, and encouraging relaxation when it knows one is anxious or tired out.

Other sensors are also being developed and are on their way: temperature sensors and moisture sensors can tell individuals a surprising amount of information when combined with accelerometers and heart rate sensors. Temperature sensors can detect minor fluctuations in body temperature, which could alert one about oncoming illnesses, and moisture sensors can monitor metabolic activity, which could be used to advise one on when exactly to eat and when to diet.

The potential health information that can be inferred from these sensors is only limited by the computer software which analyzes them. As devices emerge that combine these and other sensors, smartphones will be better at making predictions about health and can serve as a “life coach:” instructing what and when to eat, when to sleep, when to exercise and when to hydrate. By taking a lot of the guesswork out of taking care of ourselves, health monitoring devices can truly simplify our lives.

However, there are some problems which could prevent these kinds of devices from really taking off. Dr. Spruijt-Metz, MD, of the Keck School of Medicine uses wireless metabolic monitors in her research into childhood obesity.

“Design is everything,” she said.

Spruijt-Metz added, “They have to work perfectly. Right now these devices are a little glitchy, but there’s an enormous market for devices that are robust and fashionable if engineers put their minds and creativity to work.”

The future of wireless health devices holds numerous social implications. If more of society is actively aware of their health, people will be able to keep themselves healthier. This might prevent them from needing to make as many trips to the doctor, freeing up the time of physicians. In fact, having all of one’s health data on a smartphone could allow one to share that data directly with your doctor, allowing them to alert one if they notice something going wrong. In this way, in addition to keeping individuals healthy and happy, wireless health devices can also keep them safe.

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