OPE Journal

IOT, SENSORS & HEALTHCARE 24 No 35 | May 2021 | OPE journal What is the future for flexible electronics in healthcare? The experts at PragmatIC Semiconductor (Cambridge, UK) take a look at what is to come in medical and healthcare applications for our industry COVID-19 has been the biggest challenge that healthcare systems around the world have faced in living memory. On the positive side, it has pushed the accelerator on inno- vation and digitalisation. For example, the development of the new vaccines has been the fastest in history, and even though sev- eral of them are employing techniques that have previously been used only in the lab, the urgency and sheer size of the need encour- aged their roll out. It has also advanced digital medicine sig- nificantly, for example we have all got used to telemedicine: prior to COVID-19 it had only reached about 4% of the US, mainly rural communities. A study recently published in JAMA Network Open found that, early on in the pandemic, in April 2020, the use of in-person medical services in the US dropped by 52% and telemedicine services grew by more than 4000%. That does not mean telemedicine will completely replace in-person care, but it is certainly set to remain a more significant part of the process. Ten urgent health challenges There are other drivers for change too. In 2020, the World Health Organisation identi- fied ten urgent health challenges for the decade and number three on the list is making healthcare fairer. It is not just between rich and poor countries that healthcare inequality exists, limited healthcare diagnostics, prolif- eration of dangerous products (unsafe food and medicine) and the impact of air pollution, translates to a 19-year discrepancy in life expectancy between rich and poor communi- ties in developed countries. Many developed countries also face challenges due to an ageing population, reduced local services and significant entry cost for the adoption of medical technology advancements. All these are driving the requirement for new connected digital healthcare, firstly for solutions that enable people to live indepen- dently in their own homes for longer. Remote monitoring of wound care is one area that is being investigated by many, since with the increase in prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes, swift intervention can make the difference between saving or losing a limb. Presently wound monitoring requires multiple visits, made more difficult in COVID times, and is a lengthy process as the wound has to be uncovered, monitored and then redressed. And even then, the practitioner is only looking at the surface. Present trials of smart band- ages are hybrid systems with conventional silicon components; these are often still quite rigid and not particularly comfortable for the user as can be seen in the example from the University of Glasgow. Practically, for elderly care, rather than a smartphone it would make more sense to have (a) fixed reader(s) in the house, that periodically send automatic updates. Combining adhesives with flexible electronics There are also advances in adhesives for delicate, or fragile skin, for example from 3M, which if coupled with advances in flexible electronics, holds great promise for a new wave of innovation in this area. We see a future of flexible systems including sensors and machine learning to analyse the state of the underlying wound. PragmatIC is involved in a project with Arm and the Uni- versity of Manchester to develop a system for odour recognition , which is intended to extend to healthcare applications in the near future. Advances in smart wound care is equally appli- cable for care homes and hospitals, where it would enable more frequent checks to be handled potentially by a trained AI machine, capable of understanding the signature for when a change has become significant, which then alerts the staff. Enabling the nurses and carers to spend more time on other tasks. Lowering the costs of smart nappies We have also seen press on smart nappies, which allows parents to track their baby’s sleep, feed and urine/faeces patterns. There are equivalent adult incontinence monitoring systems for example near (from Near Smart Products) and drysmart (from Parasol Medical LLC) that similarly have transmitters that are attached to pads, plus other products that can detect nitrates in urine enabling carers University of Glasgow demonstration of an NFC-enabled smart bandage