A Look at the Future of Wearable Healthcare Design

April 13, 2017

Andrew Baker By: Andrew Baker
Executive Director for Industrial and Healthcare Products, Maxim Integrated


At the recent Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) in Seattle, I had the pleasure of meeting with several doctors and clinicians for a very fruitful talk. More significantly, I left our discussion with their validation that the technology behind Maxim’s bio-sensor technologies would be useful in clinical settings, providing the foundation for relatively inexpensive ways to monitor vital signs. Maxim’s hSensor Platform is an example of the enabling technologies that we are developing.

While it’s exciting to have received this assurance from the medical community, it’s even more thrilling to picture how our sensor solutions can be used to help people live healthier lives. Imagine if people in far-away villages, with little access to healthcare, could be monitored remotely via a wearable healthcare device or bio-sensor-enabled smartphone. Or if hospitals with limited quantities of medical equipment could shore up their supplies with wearable devices. For example, cost-effective patches that measure vital signs could bring greater cost-efficiencies to medical care.

Maxim’s hSensor Platform integrates a biopotential analog front-end (AFE) solution, a pulse oximeter and heart-rate sensor, two human body temperature sensors, a three-axis accelerometer, a 3D accelerometer and 3D gyroscope, and an absolute barometric pressure sensor. The platform, which allows design engineers to evaluate each of these components for their own design concepts, can shorten the product development cycle by up to six months. There are a variety of use cases for it, including:

  • Optical sensor solutions, measuring heart rate and blood-oxygen levels
  • Electrocardiogram applications via designs such as wearable patches, chest strap solutions, and arrhythmia detection devices
  • Temperature measurement solution
  • Multi-sensor solutions, measuring a variety of parameters 

My Seattle meeting with the healthcare professionals was coordinated with help from Specialists in Global Health (SiGH), a nonprofit group based out of UC San Diego that supports medical specialist education worldwide and also promotes the development and adoption of problem-solving mobile technologies. It was just one part of an effort to validate our wearable healthcare technology. SiGH is also conducting a clinical validation trial to determine whether our technology can be used effectively in a hospital setting. I’ll report more when I receive their findings after they’ve completed their trial this summer.

andrew baker discusses Maxim's bio sensor technologies at 
CROI in Seattle.

Andrew Baker discusses Maxim’s bio-sensor technologies at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) in Seattle.

Moving Closer to Telehealth

Fitness trackers are just scratching the surface of what we can create and enable with wearable technologies. The technologies, connectivity, and applications we have now are moving us closer to making telehealth a more prevalent reality. Devices that can transmit health-related data from patients to doctors will become more common. For example, researchers from several universities around the world announced last summer the development of a stretchable, wearable, battery-free patch that can monitor heart rate, blood-oxygen level, skin temperature, ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure, and changes in skin color. The very thin patch can transmit this health data wirelessly and is wirelessly powered via near-field communication (NFC) transmissions, the researchers documented in an optoelectronics article on Science Advances.

Frequent patient monitoring is another reality that wearable healthcare devices can make possible. Last summer, Wichita State University biomedical engineering students received a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to further develop a mobile health monitoring app for smartwatches called Mobile HealthLink. This app is intended to allow doctors to remotely monitor their patients without requiring an office visit. Patients, in turn, could communicate with their doctors via their watch interface.

Technologists are continuing to explore the efficacy of using wearable technologies to monitor various other health parameters. Researchers have for decades been examining ways to enable non-invasive blood glucose measurements, and we’re now seeing some positive signs. It may be realistic to see some working solutions in the next 5 to 10 years. There are also efforts in finding ways to commercialize lower cost solutions, like monitors that measure and administer insulin to Type 2 diabetics. Body hydration is also being studied; however, since hydration doesn’t correspond to any units of measurement, researchers have found it challenging to develop a tool that can accurately alert the user when he or she needs to drink some water. Alternative (non-cuff) methods to measure blood pressure are also being explored.  

From Fee-for-Service to Value-Based Healthcare

Healthcare is really on the verge of being transformed by wearables and other telehealth technologies. These developments could be particularly advantageous for people with limited mobility or those living in remote parts of the developing world who are without convenient medical care access. In fact, as these technologies become more widely used, they can benefit all of us. Last November, at the IDTechEx Show! in Santa Clara, Google’s Heidi Dohse chronicled her 30-year journey with heart disease. She highlighted how wearables and patient-generated data are moving us toward a value-based model of care versus our current fee-for-service model. Dohse’s pacemaker, which has built-in WiFi, alerts her when her heartbeat isn’t in a safe range while she’s racing her bike. The device can also transmit data collected directly to her doctor.

If patients and doctors alike are empowered with better access to health data, this model can potentially encourage better outcomes. Factors such as low power, small form factor, and low cost will continue to drive the underlying technologies inside wearable healthcare devices. Ultimately, these technologies can help create a healthier world.