Using Sensors to Watch and Learn

E-mail Melanie Martella

When I talk with people about the increasing use of sensors in healthcare, one of the capabilities I find most interesting is the ability to use sensors to obtain much richer data about a patient's condition, particularly as they go about their normal lives.

As someone whose blood pressure shoots up as soon as I spot a white coat, I know all too well how atypical some point measurements can be. This is further complicated by the fact that the human body experiences fluctuations in its chemistry throughout the day as well as throughout the year. To properly assess whether something is truly abnormal, you have to have a pretty good idea of what normal looks like.

That may be why I was so interested in the wrist sensor, developed by researchers at MIT, Boston's Childrens Hospital, and Brigham and Women's Hospital, and designed to help epileptics assess the severity of seizures in an unobtrusive yet effective manner. (It doesn't hurt that I have two acquaintances, both of whom have epilepsy of a sufficient type and severity that they're on disability.) The news story from Health News Digest, "Gauging Seizures' Severity" explains how the researchers made and tested a wrist sensor that measures the wearer's skin conductance. During a seizure (and sometimes just before one), skin conductance goes up and the higher the skin conductance, the longer it takes for the person's brain to go back to normal operation. If you're trying to assess how often people are having seizures and how severe they are, then being able to collect this data while the patients are just getting on with their days rather than sitting in a hospital tethered to monitoring equipment is a good thing, right?

Constant monitoring and response is also one of the arguments for continuous glucose monitoring for diabetics. If you're able to regulate blood glucose level continuously, that should make for better health outcomes, since its the too-low and too-high excursions that cause the problems. Similarly, wearable heart monitors can identify transient heart conditions in a way that's tricky to do inside a hospital (as my mom found out when she got to wear one for a week). Having more data doesn't necessarily mean that you'll get a better treatment out of it, but it does mean that you'll have a much clearer idea of what's happening, and for the dynamic system that is the human body, that's no mean feat. It's no coincidence that more of these types of devices are being developed, leveraging the availability of small, capable sensors; fast, powerful electronics that are frugal with their power consumption; and a range of communication options to move the data elsewhere for analysis.

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