E-textile to revolutionize the medical profession?

From the least to the most developed, countries around the world have had to adapt to COVID-19’s new normal.  One big trend, particularly in developed nations, has been the rapid digitalisation of many aspects of life. According to Stanford University, 42% of the US labor force has now fully shifted their work to virtual platforms.  Digitalisation is occurring in all fields, from judicial trials being held virtually to the rise of telemedicine.  This helps to ensure that we are using our current time more productively, leading us to move towards a more efficient lifestyle.  As we direct our efforts toward continuing our lives virtually, we can look at the e-textile industry as an opportunity for a new tool in the medical profession. 

Air Force researchers from the 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, test a compression undershirt called PHYSIO, which allows continuous monitoring of aircrews. The compression shirt monitors multiple vital signs while in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo by Richard Eldridge)

E-textiles, short for electronic textile or smart clothes refer to fabrics that contain electronic elements.  Nowadays, they are predominantly used for fitness purposes. However, with the current global situation, there is great promise that their use can be extended to medical purposes. E-textiles have embedded sensors that collect data in the form of biosignals and send them to various databases which are collated by doctors to help them to keep an eye on the patient’s health virtually. 

There are multiple companies that have been exploring the smart clothing industry for medical means. For instance, Heapsylon by Sensoria is a company which sells sportswear that includes heart rate sensors which collect data during exercise. The company aims to build a database with their smart clothes’ gathered data which will be supplemented with artificial intelligence models and analytical tools to predict future illness such as colds and flus (respiratory illnesses).  According to a report by The Lancet Digital Health, by looking into the resting heart rate data, minutes of sleep and wear time of a Fitbit and cross-referencing it with the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), researchers have created a model that can help determine if someone is likely to have an illness like influenza.  This can be determined by whether their sleeping and resting rates are both elevated beyond a certain threshold, which is data e-textiles can help gather. 

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 5.3M Americans with Alzheimer’s today and this number is projected to grow to 13.8M by 2050. Alzheimer’s patients are at risk of falling. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that in a resident home with only 100 beds, on average 200 falls occur every year.  UpBed is a Sensoria partner that creates a solution to help reduce the risk of falling dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. The caregiver places UpBed on the patient’s ankle when they are going to sleep. When the patient starts to wake up, a notification is sent to the caregiver’s phone. UpBed is comfortable, unobtrusive and it is currently being used in clinical trials.

How does it work?

The smart clothes are functional and comfortable on the skin.  The technology is transparent and is extremely simple in use. The PPU (Portable Pilot Unit) battery needs to remain charged up and the vest needs to remain attached to the batteries for it to work.  The clothes make up a cable-free system that accurately measures the progress of the patients over time. It enables the doctors to measure the reaction of drugs on a patient’s body in real-time.  The doctors can then connect to the patients via video conference and solve their queries. Smart clothes eliminate the need for visiting the hospitals for monitoring health conditions. 

Smart clothes can even help in problematic areas such as relieving chronic pain.  This is possible using the physical therapy technique of athletic tape to help prevent and recover from injury.  The athletic tape is applied to increase the blood flow and support muscles and joints to help maintain proper alignment. Smart clothes have become the need of the hour in the healthcare industry.  Due to COVID-19, a lot of hospitals around the world are overcrowded. A sustainable way to treat regular patients like rehabilitation patients is to provide the smart clothing facility to assist them.

Smart clothes are all made from conductive yarns. These yarns, which are woven into fabrics, function like sensors. These sensors have numerous functions in the medical field. Some of them include the following:

  • Detection of sequelae: Smart clothes are designed as sequelae disease detectors. In other words, once a patient wears the smart cloth, any disease or condition which is caused by an earlier disease or problem would be easily detected. For example, if a patient undergoing treatment for diarrhoea becomes suddenly dehydrated, the smart cloth would recognize it immediately and send the signals to the doctors. The ability to detect sequelae quickly would let physicians know whether a patient is responding to administered medication or not.
  • Monitoring of heart rate: Smart clothes are a good invention for pregnant women. Monitoring the baby’s heart rate simultaneously with the mother’s all through pregnancy without the need for the mother to stay in the hospital would decrease the sudden loss of fetuses. And of course, it would reduce the number of stillbirths.  This is feasible by the use of smart wristbands.  The selection of the wristbands will depend on the weight, size, and degree of comfort.  Furthermore, some patients are at risk of sudden low heart rate which can rapidly lead to heart failure. However, with the help of smart clothes, any slight change in the heart rate would be detected.  The wristband is still under testing for the moment.  
  • Drug administration: Accurately timing the use of medication has a direct correlation to the efficacy of the drug. So, it is important that patients adhere to the stipulated drug administration schedule. And truth be told, patients often forget to take their pills at the appropriate time. The invention of smart clothes is a timely solution to this challenge. As long as you have the clothes on, your drug administration schedule can be correctly adhered to without you missing a dose.
  • Regulating the effect of drugs: Smart clothes are great for monitoring the effects of medications. Once you take your dose, the smart cloth would start to track the changes in your body. It communicates both the positive and adverse effects of the medication on you. The smart clothes would send a signal of the improvement in your health as a result of the medication. As for individuals who are reactive to a particular drug, smart clothes would easily relay the information to the physician before any damage is done.

By those above means, the patients do not need to move and could always have a doctor by their side. This applies to patients with ongoing treatment.  For patients who have an injury, smart clothing would be appropriate to act as a rehabilitation tool.  

In any case, it is beneficial for both doctors and patients as they could easily follow up with patients and be more efficient, as hospitals are overcrowded nowadays due to COVID-19. 

To conclude, smart clothes are a welcome development based on the numerous ease they have brought to the medical field. Thanks to COVID-19, the e-textile industry might know its biggest period of growth. However, even with the ever-reliable smart clothes, it is important for patients to keep to doctor’s appointments and comply with their advice.

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