Sensors that read patients vital signs just 10 years away

The era of doctors using smartphones at the patient’s bedside to make an instant diagnosis while simultaneously accessing their medical history from a cloud may sound like something out of Star Trek, but it is, in fact, less than a decade away, according to an expert in emerging device technology.

Jim Greer, head of Tyndall Graduate Studies Centre, said smartphones were supercomputers with in-built sensors which allow them carry out a variety of functions, such as detecting ambient light, humidity, temperature and pressure.

It was only a matter of time before the technology was adapted so that sensors could read a patient’s vital signs, Prof Greer said, adding that this, coupled with cloud computing, would allow doctors “to analyse and diagnose” a patient’s condition locally. The challenge is how to use nanotechnology to build this intelligence into devices.

“The technology to enable that exists,” Prof Greer said. “The capabilities are actually there. The question is how do you get them all working together, how do you integrate sensors to give the doctor what he wants. The challenge is to make the technology, which in some sense is already in the consumer market, accurate and reliable enough for use in a medical setting.”

Prof Greer, who gave a talk entitled ‘Nanotechnology in Emergency Medicine’ on the first day of the Irish Association of Emergency Medicine (IAEM)’s annual scientific meeting in Cork, said the race was on to develop a portable, palm-held, wireless device that monitors and diagnoses health conditions, with a $10m (€8.7m) prize on offer from Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize, an educational nonprofit organisation.

The device, which can not weigh more than 2.3kg, must be able to diagnose over a dozen medical conditions, including whooping cough, hypertension, mononucleosis, shingles, melanoma, HIV, and osteoporosis, and must read five vital signs, including heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, temperature.

The prize is named for the tricorder device from science fiction series Star Trek, used to quickly gather vital signs and instantly diagnose ailments.

“That is really the challenge for the industry, how to build all that into a single device that is readily available to the doctor, the nurse, the paramedic,” said Prof Greer.

Tyndall has already developed a number of medical breakthrough devices including:

  • The ‘Ouchless’ needle, a microneedle measuring less than one millionth of a metre that can deliver drugs without causing discomfort;
  • A medical guide wire that can measure blood flow in arteries, an advance on the traditional use of guide wires to insert stents or clear arteries. The Tyndall guide wire is focussed on relaying real-time medical information to doctors via an exterior linked device.

The IAEM meeting continues at the Kingsley Hotel today an includes talks on ‘The Ouchless ED’ (emergency department) and the re-organisation of trauma networks in Irish hospitals.


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