For an ecosystem to function properly, all components must be connected, interacting through complimentary Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, which is especially vital for medical data collection systems. It’s this convergence of technologies – sophisticated algorithms, operating platforms, wireless capability, smart devices, sensing technology – that fuels the evolution of healthcare, which includes wearable technologies generating medically accurate data. The implication in healthcare is a fundamental shift in the generation of patient data, with improved outcomes, reduced cost of care, and enhanced quality of life for patients.
Parker’s FlexSense technology is a sensing component of the IoT systems that can enable remote monitoring of chronic diseases and support other medical applications such as podiatry, orthopedics, and physical and occupational therapy, while also creating new possibilities for aging-in-place solutions.
Made of a silicon-based material with electroactive polymer (EAP) technology embedded in the sensors’ strip, FlexSense takes precise, accurate strain and displacement measurements. Soft, flexible, conformable, and durable, it can be used as a stretch or compression sensor, rapidly capturing extremely fine measurements of movement. Usually affixed to textiles, the sensors can be worn on the leg, foot, arm, knee, elbow, chest, and other areas where clothing is normally worn. Applications currently in development include footwear, gloves, socks, and compression garments.
“The conformability allows it to become truly wearable and portable,” says Marc Williams, IoT project lead at Parker. Patients gain “different types of condition monitoring capabilities in their own environment, reducing the need for office visits.”
The silicone fiber sensors can withstand variable environmental conditions such as high and low temperatures, shock, dust, vibration, and moisture, and can be washed – important for textile-based wearable technology.
“Parker engineers work with IoT development partners to adapt the sensors to their clients’ specific application requirements. This customization can include the sensor’s shape and size, physical properties, coatings, and electronics,” says Tim Mannchen of Parker’s EAP Market Development Team. “Development and testing of several solutions are nearing completion and commercial availability is anticipated in 2019.”
FlexSense technology will enable applications that remotely monitor chronic conditions, improve patient outcomes, enhance quality of life, and help reduce healthcare costs including:
Congestive heart failure – Sensors embedded in textiles detect swelling and weight changes, indicators of fluid buildup which stresses a weakened heart, often leading to costly, recurring hospital stays and emergency room visits. Remote monitoring will allow providers to react earlier to changes in a patient, so treatment can be provided on an out-patient basis before the patient’s condition deteriorates further.
Diabetic ulcers – Patients who have reduced feeling in their feet have compromised ability to detect symptoms that can lead to development of foot ulcers. Socks equipped with FlexSense sensors could detect heat and inflammation that are signs of infection, as well as changes in the skin’s surface if a callous emerges. By remotely monitoring at-risk patients, the application can help prevent development of diabetic foot ulcers by detecting them sooner; when they are less costly and less complex to treat. Wound care – Sensors embedded into bandages would detect changes in the size of the wound and would also detect heat, an indication of possible infection. Orthopedics, physical, occupational therapy – Sensors placed in compression garments or sleeves can help measure range of motion, strength, flexibility, and dexterity. In some instances, sensors are placed directly on the skin.
“Doctors and therapists can use these applications for in-office visits to measure progress during rehabilitation when balance, range of motion, and strength are built up. Patients performing at-home rehabilitative exercises can measure progress and share that information with their providers via their smartphone,” Mannchen says. “Applications are also in development that can coach patients on exercise techniques to help assure success of the therapy regime and prevention of re-injury. In these applications, the patient’s exercise movements are captured and compared to the proper techniques. Corrective coaching is quickly offered to the patient via their smartphone.”
Podiatry – Pressure sensors are placed in several locations in a sock or shoe insole to monitor balance conditions, revealing where and how much force is exerted.
Parker Hannifin Corp.