Wearable Health IT Systems

The 1980's were dominated by the use of personal computers (PC). The 1990's saw the widespread acquisition and use of laptop computers. This decade has seen the widespread acceptance and use of mobile personal digital assistants (PDA) or smartphones, e.g. iPod, Blackberry, etc. We will probably look back at this next decade and see that it was dominated by the production and use of wearable information technology (WIT) systems.

The idea of wearable computers goes back to the 1960s, but early attempts to create these types of systems were hampered by the size of the hardware. In order for a computer to be "wearable" it has to be fairly small, lightweight, be able to be attached to clothing, or even be integrated into clothing fibers. It must be unobtrusive and conveniently placed on the body and should not interfere with a user's normal activities. However, several recent advances have profoundly impacted the potential to produce wearable IT systems such as:

  • New fibers called Aracon, made of Kevlar, which are super strong, can conduct electricity and be woven into ordinary-looking clothes.
  • A new chip packaging process allows wearable computers to be woven into clothing and other textiles that can be washed and dry-cleaned.
  • A range of new head-mounted display units have emerged that allow users to view information from a computer while on the move.
  • Nanotechnology will play a significant role, making computing and communications systems microscopic in size and more conducive to on-body usage.

Many companies are already manufacturing and distributing wearable computer systems to various types of organizations. Examples of non-healthcare related wearable IT systems include:

  • Nomad Display Systems - a wireless, wearable computer with a unique, head-worn display enabling technicians to work using both hands and simultaneously see service and dealership management system (DMS) information.
  • Display and Sight Helmet (DASH) Systems enable military pilots to aim their weapons simply by looking at the target. DASH measures the pilot's Line of Sight (LOS) relative to the aircraft, and transfers this information to other aircraft systems. Aircraft sensors, avionics and weapons are thus enslaved to the target.
  • MIThril is a next-generation wearables research platform developed by researchers at the MIT Media Lab. The MIThril hardware platform combines body-worn computation, sensing, and networking in a clothing-integrated design.

Wearable health IT systems for both physicians and patients will start to emerge over this next decade. Wearable computers for physicians will allow them to treat patients and complete their rounds while connected via wireless networks to computerized patient records. Patients will start to use wearable medical sensors to measure body temperature, blood oxygen, heart rate, blood pressure, glucose levels and much more.

The following are links to wearable health IT systems to check out:

  • US Army Institute of Soldier Nanotechnologies that is working with MIT and attempting to incorporate wound detection and treatment systems within uniforms made of smart materials.
  • The Ring Sensor is an ambulatory, telemetric, continuous health monitoring device developed by d'Arbeloff Laboratory for Information Systems and Technology at MIT. They have also helped develop a number of other wearable sensors for patients.
  • The "SmartShirt" was funded by DoD and developed by researchers at Georgia Tech. It is a fiber optic-laden garment with a built-in conductive fiber/sensor system that can capture and relays a patient's vital signs, heart rate and more in real-time.
  • Vigilance, used by anesthesiologists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, visually integrates data derived from several sources, including patient monitors, electronic medical records, and operating room video cameras, and transmitting it to a computer worn by a mobile clinician.
  • The Vocera Wearable Communication System is a wireless system aimed at mobile workers in hospitals that provides hands-free, voice activated communications within networked buildings/campuses.
  • Other wearable health IT systems to look into include BodyMedia, BodyKom, and the LifeShirt.

As sensor and computing technologies continue to evolve, their integration into wearable medical devices for monitoring, diagnosis, and treatment of illnesses will become commonplace. A personalized health management device would allow a person to be more interactive and more conscious of his/her own condition in a way to adopt a healthier lifestyle and obtain personalized therapy. Finally, for healthcare organizations, it could reduce hospital operating costs while possibly increasing the number of patients receiving care.

Have you used a wearable information technology (WIT) system? Do you know of other examples we ought to know about? Please share with us.