A combination of disposable wireless sensors and smartphones is about to make health care more personal, immediate, and affordable. New solutions are emerging that harvest real-time health data and respond with on-the-spot warnings or suggestions. This technology will not only produce better outcomes, it will help extend the benefits of modern health care to people in developing countries and keep consumers everywhere better informed about the latest health products and practices.
The disposable wireless sensors being developed and commercialized by Gentag, Inc. are a good example. The sensors are intended for use by consumers and come packaged as either skin patches or specimen dipsticks. Gentag believes there is a huge global market for sensors that can be mass-produced, are easy to use, and work with popular smartphones and tablet computers.
Unlike telemedicine, which was conceived to conquer distance, Gentag's technology is mainly about immediacy. Consumers can use skin patches and dipsticks at their convenience in their homes and workplaces. Smartphone apps provide instant feedback and can automatically forward results to caregivers. Problems can be spotted in their earliest, most treatable stages and therapy can begin at once.
Disposable sensors offer significant savings over traditional solutions. Most of the sensor designs lend themselves to high-volume mass production. They work with smartphones that consumers already have or are expected to have in the near future. And disposable wireless sensors avoid the costs associated with traveling to and using outpatient labs.
Gentag's skin patch sensors typically consist of printable chemical strips and near field communications (NFC) chips. The chemical strips can test and measure parameters such as body temperature, skin moisture, and (with the aid of microneedles) blood glucose. NFC makes collecting the results as simple as a waving a phone over the skin patch. (NFC sensors don't require batteries because the phone provides the power.) Using NFC to read a sensor also helps avoid human error. Dipstick sensors can test specimens such as urine for pregnancy, prostate cancer, and other conditions.
The disposable wireless sensor-smartphone combination can be used to manage serious medical conditions. A smartphone app for managing diabetes can collect blood glucose readings from a skin patch containing microneedles and send commands to an implanted insulin pump. The app can determine when insulin is needed and whether a delivered dose was sufficient. The app can also take into account time of day, food consumed, and the patient's past responses. Gentag hopes that skin patches with microneedles will free children with Type 1 diabetes from having to stick themselves several times per day.
Gentag's dipstick sensor technology can detect very specific medical conditions. Monoclonal antibodies are used to produce biomarkers for particular pathogens, allergens, cancers, and drug toxicity. There are potentially thousands of biomarkers that can be detected. The urine test for prostate cancer mentioned above uses biomarkers.
A Bundle of Benefits
Disposable wireless sensors offer additional benefits to makers of consumer health products. Manufacturers can deliver increased value by bundling disposable wireless sensors that help customers use their products more effectively and efficiently. When customers download the free apps that are required to use the disposable sensors, they identify themselves and establish direct communications with the manufacturers.
This is a big deal, because until now non-prescription consumer health products were nearly always purchased anonymously. Free smartphone apps can be used to gather demographic data, to gauge satisfaction, and to learn more about how customers use specific products. The apps can also be used to deliver electronic coupons, new product announcements, and health tips. Most manufacturers are likely to conclude that it's worth the cost of giving away disposable sensors and smartphone apps to learn about and communicate directly with their end users.
There is another intriguing potential benefit of disposable wireless sensors. Modern medicine is highly information-driven, but most physiological data is collected when patients visit a doctor or emergency room. With Gentag's technology, data can be gathered from people as they go about their daily activities. Large scale tracking of physiological data could help health care providers detect epidemics earlier and more accurately identify the warning signs for specific medical problems. Disposable wireless sensors and smartphones should also make clinical trials easier for both participants and researchers.
Technology is often blamed for the high cost of health care. However, technology has proved essential to driving down costs in industry after industry. By diagnosing health problems earlier and enabling patients to manage medical conditions at home, disposable wireless sensors and smartphones will help produce better outcomes at lower cost. It's a bit like having a doctor in your pocket.
Ira Brodsky is a consultant based in St. Louis, Mo. He is also author of The History & Future of Medical Technology.