No one likes going to the doctor. There's the inevitable wait in the waiting room before eventually being ushered into the office of the harried doctor who spends most of his day dealing with relatively minor complaints or simple follow-up visits. Then, of course, there's the bill. But what if patients could get a check up without having to actually visit the doctor? A smart T-shirt fitted with various sensors is designed to do just that.
The smart T-shirt was developed by a consortium of 14 partners in eight European countries through the Chronius project, which received support of EUR 7.25 million (approx. US$8.74 million) in research funding from the European Commission. It was designed specifically for patients suffering Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and Chronic kidney disease (CKD), however, it can be adapted for those suffering similar incurable chronic illnesses that require long-term care.
Similar to clothing-based medical monitoring systems we've seen previously, the T-shirt features heart, respiratory and activity monitoring sensors. However, its open, modular and flexible design means the combination of sensors can also be changed to meet the specific requirements of patients, including those living with more than one disorder.
The wearable part of the system is designed to work alongside external devices, such as digital weight scales, glucometers, blood pressure monitors, spirometers and even air quality sensors in the patient's home or room. The sensors are connected to a smartphone or PDA, which then relays the information to the care provider. Finally, the patient’s data is crunched with the help of intelligent software.
"Currently, treating such diseases requires patients to visit their doctor or specialist frequently for check-ups to monitor their progress. This is inconvenient for patients and doctors, it's costly for healthcare providers, and the treatment may not always be optimal because of insufficient or inaccurate data," said Roberto Rosso, R&D Manager at TeSAN.
If patients can be monitored remotely, they will require fewer check-ups, taking the strain off healthcare systems dealing with aging populations and freeing up doctors to see patients that require direct service. Trials of telehealth systems by TeSAN showed remote monitoring could reduce patient visits to a clinic or hospital by up to 30 percent. Also, being connected to a remote system means that people living by themselves are connected to their carers through an alert system when a crisis occurs.
Successful trials have been conducted in Spain and Italy with 50 COPD and 60 CKD patients. A fresh round of EU funding means the project will undergo further trials with 300 patients in other European countries such as Spain, Estonia, Slovenia, Sweden and the United Kingdom, with special focus on patients living with two or more kinds of disorder, such as CKD and diabetes.
Despite high costs, Rosso said the project has attracted interest from healthcare providers in countries such as the United States and China, as well as having caught the eye of sports organizations. These include the Italian rugby team, which would like to try the Chronius T-shirt during training in order to monitor the players’ performance. With sports teams often having more cash to splash around than a lot of healthcare providers, the sports arena is where the technology might first be used.
Besides the trials, TeSAN is studying the possibility of developing a commercial service for remotely monitoring chronically ill patients. Project partners Velti and Uniscan are considering commercializing some of the underlying technological components of the system.