eTech Insight – Will Skin-Printable Monitors Become the Next Health Monitoring Devices?

Ensuring Patient Satisfaction and Compliance with Virtual Care and Telemedicine

Before the COVID-19 crisis, consumers wearing digital monitors such as watches, or fitness trackers was a declining trend. The Accenture 2020 Digital Health Consumer Survey identified a drop in wearable technologies from 2018–2020. In 2018, using wearables to monitor the health status of a patient was at 33%. By 2020, it had dropped to 18%. The pandemic exposed the need for remote patient monitoring technologies to support telemedicine and virtual office visits. However, the same survey identified 50% of consumers saying a bad digital experience ruins the entire experience. 

There are several challenges for effectively implementing wearable technologies to support telemedicine. Wearable devices may generate inconsistent and imprecise measurements. Battery requirements can limit the effectiveness of the devices and achieving FDA security certification can be difficult. The devices can be expensive and may have a high technological obsolescence risk. 

Patient challenges for using wearable health monitoring devices evolve around comfort and the ease of provisioning the device with a smartphone or home network to transmit results to the provider. An uncomfortable device to wear is a nonstarter. Patients may also balk at using wearables that detract from their appearance. The inability to create an intuitive link between the wearable device and a smartphone or home network to share real-time data will also result in failure of adoption of the wearable device by patients and physicians. 

Printed Monitors 

Imagine medical sensor circuits that are printed directly to the back of the hand that obtain sensor outputs equal to or better than conventional commercial monitoring devices. The sensors measure temperature, humidity, blood oxygen, heart rate, blood pressure, and electrophysiologic signals. These printed circuits were developed by Chinese research that solved all the challenges for applying the sensors to the skin. These sensors can work for aged people as well as children, and the devices can be reused. They simply wash off when they are no longer needed with hot water but remain in place if bathed with tepid water. Data transmission is accomplished via wireless network components. Researchers believe the printed circuits will be reusable. 

The unanswered questions related to skin-printable wearables are related to cost, reliability, and availability. Will the skin wearable be able to compete in terms of cost with a smart watch? How reliable will these printable sensors be, and how long will they last? Where will the printable sensor be applied—the doctors’ offices or the hospitals? What equipment and reagents will be required? How adaptable is the print process to office or hospital environments? 

If the printable skin sensors work well, they could be amazingly effective for monitoring babies and children where other wearables might be challenging to maintain. The flexibility of skin-printable wearables might even evoke new art forms. Designs from famous tattoo artists or even designers such as Calvin Klein could make this approach to wearables a fashion statement—or not.

Lifestyles Will Drive Adoption

Textiles are now being developed that use metal wires to create health monitoring devices that can be used in clothes or bed sheets. While embedding remote patient monitoring capabilities into patients’ clothes will likely lead skin-printable sensors into the market, the key for both approaches is providing a remote health monitoring solution that does not inhibit the patients’ lifestyle. Providing a solution that is worn as clothing or printed on the skin ensures the monitoring is continuous and, in most cases, not obvious to the patient. While remote monitoring solutions such as watches and clothing might be removed by the patient at times, this is less likely for skin-printable sensors.

Patch Monitors Evolving to Skin-Printable Monitors 

Patch sensors are the likely precursors for skin-printable sensors if the technology becomes commercially viable. These are some representative companies providing patches to monitor patients:

  • LEAF Patient Monitoring System—Provides pressure monitoring to eliminate the risk of pressure injuries
  • Seers Bio Patch—Body-worn wireless bio patch that continuously measures ECG, heart rate, heart rate variability, activity, and respiration rate
  • BioIntelliSense—FDA-cleared BioSticker™ on-body sensor to monitor respiratory rate, heart rate at rest, and skin temperature for COVID-19 

Success Factors

  1. Skin-printable monitors are in the early phases of testing for accuracy, reliability, and applicability. Organizations with innovation centers that have experience with highly immature technologies should evaluate how to advance this technology to commercial solutions.
  2. Innovation center partnerships on skin-printable sensors may lead to the most rapid and cost-effective commercialization of this technology.
  3. Organizations who create commercially viable skin-printable monitoring solutions will become a disruptive influence on the wearables monitoring market.

Summary

Most of us are familiar with the commercial where the bank scans the heads of their customers, implying the bank has some type of chip embedded to identify the customers. While this is humorous, it is also insightful relative to how technologies might be used in appropriate ways to help people monitor and manage their health. While wearables such as the Apple Watch are becoming viable remote patient monitors, the challenges for widespread use of these devices are cost and ongoing technical advancement (e.g., new versions of the watches annually). The ability to print a health monitoring device on the patient’s skin for the specific vital signs that the provider wants to monitor continuously provides disruptive potential for RPM devices and services. While challenges related to cost, application requirements (e.g., instruments and reagents), and reliability will need to be proven, the vision is certainly something we can all support. Please make my skin-printable monitor look like a Minion.



Photo Credit: Adobe Stock, Metamorworks