Flexible wearables: a game-changer for connected healthcare
At the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, researchers are using wearable sensors to track the rehabilitation progress of stroke sufferers.

Flexible wearables: a game-changer for connected healthcare

Flexible wearables are changing the face of connected healthcare in Chicago. At the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in the city, researchers are using wearable sensors to track the rehabilitation progress of stroke sufferers.

The stretchable devices have been developed at Northwestern University to be subtle, comfortable, and non-invasive. Given the physical nature of stroke rehabilitation, these are important properties.

The latest addition to Professor John A. Rogers’ stretchable electronics portfolio at the university is a sensor designed to be worn on the throat. With it, doctors can keep tabs on the development of patients’ swallowing ability and speech patterns.

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A full-body, real-time picture

Recovering from a stroke is a complex and arduous process, and each patient requires specialised support throughout it. Motor skills often need to be reacquired, and many patients suffer from aphasia, or difficulty speaking.

Coordinating this type of care and rehabilitation isn’t easy, particularly as round-the-clock tracking has been impossible without a tangle of wires, which could be hazardous to the patient’s recovery.

“If you look at what’s in the hospital today, most of the sensors require wires connected to external boxes of electronics. That’s great if you’re in a hospital bed, but if you want to go home it’s just not compatible with daily activity,” said Rogers.

His team’s stretchable wearables are changing that dynamic, empowering both doctors and patients with precise data from all over the body, without the need for wires. “It really allows you to track the patient continuously, but in a way that’s not disruptive,” he said.

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No recovery drop-off with flexible sensors

The new throat sensor is essentially an electronic band-aid. The only difference is that it quantitatively measures the patients’ swallowing ability and speech patterns, which in turn can help with the diagnosis and treatment of aphasia.

Traditional speech therapy tools, such as microphones, aren’t smart enough to distinguish between patients’ voices and background noise.

“Our sensors solve that problem by measuring the vibrations of the vocal cords,” Rogers said. “But they only work when worn directly on the throat, which is a very sensitive area of the skin. We developed novel materials for this sensor, which bend and stretch with the body, minimising discomfort to patients.”

At Chicago’s Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, the new throat sensors are being used in conjunction with a range of other electronic biosensors developed in Rogers’ lab. Together, they send data from the legs, arms, and chest, streaming data wirelessly to clinicians in real time.

“One of the biggest problems we face with stroke patients is that their gains tend to drop off when they leave the hospital,” said Arun Jayaraman, a research scientist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab.

“With the home monitoring enabled by these sensors, we can intervene at the right time, which could lead to better, faster recoveries for patients.”

All of the data collected from Rogers’ stretchable sensors is presented in a dashboard overview. Goals can be set, progress tracked, and alerts created to warn doctors if patients are underperforming against key recovery metrics.

The technology is extending the stroke rehabilitation process beyond the confines of the treatment centre. “Talking with friends and family at home is a completely different dimension from what we do in therapy,” said Leora Cherney, an expert in aphasia treatment from the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab.

“Having a detailed understanding of patients’ communication habits outside of the clinic helps us develop better strategies with our patients to improve their speaking skills and speed up their recovery process.”

Internet of Business says

The past few months have seen a range of new IoT technologies that shift the sector beyond its industrial, urban, and domestic heartlands, and into areas that are more personal to human beings. These technologies redefine the concept of wearable devices: an exciting development, particularly in health tech, which is sometimes criticised for developing impersonal devices. These are systems that not only stress and support the patients’ humanity, but in some cases help them to recover or rediscover their true selves.