29 August 2014
This article first appeared on Forbes.
Smart pills containing RFID technology, and skin patches equipped with microcircuits, are powering a wearable and digestible healthcare revolution in which constant monitoring and advanced data analysis are key.
The technology offers patients the ability to better track and manage their diseases, while helping healthcare companies to monitor patient progress. Crucially, pharmaceutical companies are in on the act as they attempt to find new ways to treat disease and grow their revenues.
Market research firm IDTechEx predicts that the wearable electronics business, including glasses, jewellery, headgear, belts, armwear and wristwear, legwear and footwear, skin patches, exoskeletons and e-textiles will grow from $14 billion this year to $70 billion by 2024, with healthcare forming the main part.
The developments come alongside other powerful advances in wearable tech, such as the breakthroughs being sought by actor Michael J Fox whose Parkinson’s foundation is equipping patients with smart watches to track their movements and gait. Elsewhere, Google and Novartis are developing a smart contact lens to help diabetics manage their lifestyle by reading their blood sugar levels directly from the eyeball.
Under the latest developments, smart pills containing RFID technology have been manufactured, enabling doctors to know whether patients have taken the tablets – a major area of expense and concern for many healthcare providers – as well as monitoring heart rate and body temperature.
“It could be described as in-body wearable technology, and companies like [Redwood, California-based] Proteus Digital Health have already made strides in this area,” says Chris Steel, head of US IT advisory services at PA Consulting Group. The pills were approved by regulator the FDA last year. Proteus itself is backed by a number of large companies including phramaceutical firm Novartis and software company Oracle.
The pill contains a tiny sensor that is linked to patch worn by the patient, which in turn communicates to smart phones and tablet computers. The pill sensor is entirely powered by a reaction with stomach juices.
Meanwhile, smart skin patches with wafer thin circuits are in development by a number of companies, to assist with the monitoring of various illnesses by monitoring blood sugar, pressure, and pulse rates. They are powered by skin warmth and communicate the data with mobile devices.
Some of the skin patches under development by various companies and researchers will also eventually be able to release drugs and monitor the response, though significantly higher amounts of power may be needed for this.
Other companies are developing weight and walking style measurement technology for shoes, so that doctors and patients can be gauged on an ongoing basis.
All of this technology communicates with other mobile devices, and data capture and analytics systems, to drive useful information for all parties concerned.
“We spend too much time and money trying to catch problems, considering the whole process can be done much better for specific illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, and allergies,” says Nilesh Chandra, business architect at PA Consulting Group. “For the patients, they often only go to the doctor couple of times a year and this is really not a good way of tracking their daily progress.”
Some of the new technology types have yet to be approved by the FDA. As a result, much of the pushing behind the technology comes from the pharmaceutical companies and IT vendors, which have the financial and political clout to lobby.
“Once the technology, which is already proven to be durable, is introduced, we think it will be popular among patients and healthcare companies, although it is still very early days to judge how much,” says Steel. “But the growing popularity of wearable tech for fitness and general health purposes is likely to promote its adoption.”
In the future, technology companies will be as crucial in this area as the pharmaceuticals. Information providers such as Google and Facebook will play a key part – both of these companies are already aggressively examining new types of technology from 3D to virtual reality.
Chandra explains: “Look at Google Glass, which has enormous potential. If a patient is collapsing, doctors can pull up information from the person’s glasses very quickly, which is highly valuable. Many of the new wearable types of technology will totally revolutionize healthcare, and the industry is in need of that.”