Wearable Electronics: The Shape-Shifting Future of Medical Devices

Flexible circuit 2Think about your last doctor’s appointment. You probably had your blood pressure taken and blood drawn for routine tests. Your doctor may have listened to your heart with a stethoscope and then referred you to the hospital for an electrocardiogram (EKG). There, a nurse pasted electrodes on your chest so a machine the size of an office printer recorded the electrical activity of your heart. All a necessary part of your wellness routine, but you had to take a day off work and endure a little pain in the process.

Now imagine a new scenario: You check in at the doctor’s office. The receptionist hands you a small, self-adhesive patch that you wear on your skin and it instantly transmits all your vital healthcare data directly to the doctor – before you even get to the exam room. After a brief chat with the doctor, you are sent on your way with a clean bill of health and all this is accomplished during your lunch break.

This is the future potential of flexible electronics in wearable medical devices: to free both patient and doctor from the bulky and unwieldy technology of the past. When most of us think of electronics on a printed circuit board, we think of a rigid, stiff device. However, advances in electronics, flexible materials and technology are driving development of new wearable electronics that can bend and fold just like paper.

Flexible printed electric circuit

Flexible electronics are lightweight, portable and so thin and supple that they can conform to the human body. They represent a nascent, but fast-growing industry. A report from IDTechEx, titled Printed, Organic & Flexible Electronics: Forecasts, Players & Opportunities 2013-2023, found that the total market for these technologies will grow almost five-fold in 10 years, from about $16 billion in 2013 to nearly $77 billion in 2023. Likely no industry stands to see more innovation from flexible electronics than the medical device industry.

What if diabetics could wear a contact lens that continuously monitors their glucose levels, forever eliminating finger sticks and bloody test strips? What if, instead of around-the-clock bedside checks that wear on patients and nurses alike, a tissue-thin adhesive patch could report hospital patients’ vitals signs directly to the nurses’ station – or to the patient’s electronic medical record? What if a flexible circuit could detect – or even treat – the first signs of recurring malignancy in cancer patients? What if these monitors enable us to gather Big Data on vitals that through intelligent prognostic analysis could predict the onset of a malady?

Recent advances in flexible electronics technology has allowed researchers to devise a way to print devices directly onto the skin allowing people to go about normal daily activities for an extended period of time. Such systems could be used to track medical conditions and monitor healing near the skin’s surface, as in the case of surgical wounds.

Bloomberg’s Sheila Dharmarajan investigates the outlook for wearable electronics on Bloomberg Television’s “Bloomberg West.” She reports on a new method to reformat silicon allowing electronics to bend, stretch and conform to the human body.

The possibilities are truly endless: intelligent surgical instruments that give the surgeon real-time feedback to improve the speed and precision of procedures; conformal pacemakers to keep the heart functioning without degrading quality of life; neural implants to control prosthetics; and biosensors to transmit data to remote health care providers, increasing access for rural or movement-restricted patients and reducing or replacing the need for frequent doctor appointments.

In addition to improving health care access, delivery and medical consumers’ comfort and convenience, flexible electronics will be cheaper, faster and easier to manufacture than traditional circuitry for medical applications. Wearable electronics relies on the promise of organic materials that function similarly to inorganic materials but can be dissolved in a solution, forming conductive, semi-conductive and dielectric “functional inks” that allow circuits to be manufactured using printing techniques.

A number of companies have already begun developing flexible medical technologies that will soon be available commercially. As the technology evolves, demand – driven by an aging population, longer life expectancy and the quest for more affordable and less invasive health care – is expected to continue to increase.

What applications do you see for wearable electronics in medical devices? Where do you see the most potential for growth and innovation? Can we do something near term to realize incremental benefits? What stands between these ideas and their realization?

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