Can Electronic Stick-on Patches Improve Self-Monitoring Healthcare?

Engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University have come up with thin, soft stick-on patches that monitor your health without getting in the way of your normal daily routine. The engineers think these electronic patches can go beyond the fitness tracking and could even be used to identify health problems. 

The patch is soft as skin and can bend and flex with your body movement. It actively monitors your health, collects the data, and sends it wirelessly to a computer or cellphone. "What is very important about this device is it is wirelessly powered and can send high-quality data about the human body to a computer, in real time," says Yonggang Huang, the Northwestern University professor who co-led the work on the patch with Illinois professor John A. Rogers.

The engineers think this could replace the traditional EKG and EEG monitors. They put this notion to the test by comparing the performance of the device side-by-side with conventional EKG and EEG monitors, and found that the performance was equal. 

When it comes to making a choice between the patch or conventional monitors, it goes without saying that patients would be more comfortable wearing a tiny patch that sends clinical data wirelessly than being hooked up to a traditional clinical monitoring setup which involves wires trailing from the patient to the system. 

The patch could also be of help with premature newborns, who have fragile skin. In addition, the patch is thought of as a significant aid to long-term monitoring of disorders such as those associated with stress or sleep.

But how did the engineers fit all the necessary electronic components into one small patch? The team explains that they first built the patch with a thin elastic envelope filled with fluid. Then, they placed the chip components on tiny raised support points, which anchored them to the underlying patch while still allowing them the freedom to stretch and move.

The researchers, however, claim the biggest engineering feat on the patch lies with the wiring. A design of tiny, squiggly wires connect all the important electronics components such as radios, power inductors and sensors etc. These wires are folded like origami to make sure that no matter which way the patch bends or twists, the wires can unfold in any direction. 

These on-skin patches could also give those interested in tracking their fitness a more complete and accurate picture of their activity level. "When you measure motion on a wristwatch type device, your body is not very accurately or reliably coupled to the device," says Rogers.

He went on to say that the "relative motion" causes a lot of background noise, and with skin-mounted devices one can get a much deeper and richer set of information than would be possible with devices that are not well coupled with the skin. The team will publish its design in the April 4 issue of Science.

The scope of what this device can do goes even further, as Rogers says it could detect motions associated with Parkinson's disease at its onset.

by RTT Staff Writer

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