Sensing Smarter Healthcare: This is Only the Beginning

By William Rusnak

We are just beginning to see the full potential of the use of sensors in healthcare.

In fact, the day may soon come when acute changes in a patient’s vitals may be sent as an alert to the phone of a primary care physician. Giant fluctuations of glucose levels in the blood of diabetics may be detected without the need to repeatedly prick finger tips. Food diaries, home blood pressures jotted down on notepads, and face-to-face follow-up appointments will likely be a thing of the past.

The typical check-up that we know today may transform into the equivalent of getting your car’s computer inspected when the “check engine” light is on. Sensors will lead to more pertinent data collection, and with the right analytics, will significantly improve outcomes.

Currently, sensors are being explored in “fall prediction” research. Falls occur often for geriatric patients and cause a multitude of problems. Those who have rotated through an emergency department know that a huge portion of the calls are for an elderly person who fell to the ground. To assess potential risk, exams such as the Tinetti test, which measures balance, are presently being used.

Wearable sensors may provide a way to predict falls in patients suffering from dementia. They will allow for more objective information as compared to what is currently provided from using the standard clinical tests. Specifically, accelerometers, which measure motion, are being introduced as a way to collect this data from patients. The hope is that because the accelerometer is small, patients won’t feel bothered to wear the technology, which is typically a problem for wearable equipment (e.g. breathing masks).

Accelerometers along with gyroscopes and magnetometers are also being worn by people suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee. To observe joint movement, these sensors are carefully attached to the person’s skin with tape to create minimal problems with wearability to the patient for activities conducted at home. The sensors then collect data about day-to-day joint mobility. When sensors are worn both before and after surgery, comparable data is available to assess the clinical efficacy of one of the most popular surgeries in our country, the knee replacement.

To put it simply, Big Data will change the way physicians practice. The Kaiser Permanente North California (KPNC) program is using a similar approach to treating hypertension (high blood pressure). Over a span of nearly 10 years, data was collected from 652,763 patients who suffer from the condition. By continuously analyzing the data, physicians were able to update and share guidelines every two years. The result? The control of the disease rose from 43.6% to 80.4% during that time! This dwarfs the national rise in the control of hypertension, which was less than 5%.

Ingestible sensors

Finding a noninvasive way to observe a patient from the inside is another interest for practitioners in many specialties. Ingestible sensors have made their way into medicine for this reason. By swallowing this pill-like sensor, doctors can monitor medications taken by the patient.   The benefits for doctors include the ability to study how a medication is reacting with the patient’s body and to see if any the patient needs modification with their medication. There will be no more relying on medication lists written on napkins!

Future Development

The excitement surrounding sensors in medicine has reached all areas of the world. Recently, Nokia sponsored an international competition, the Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE, to promote sensor use within the medical field. For the first round, teams were to share their creations for medical sensing technology that focused on individual health and home environment. The winning team’s sensor worked to accurately diagnose diseases using a small sample of blood or saliva. The sample is then tested by an individual using their own mobile device instead of a laboratory. That certainly beats the drive to and wait at your local lab!

In the future, if it can be measured, it will be measured. Our challenge will be in identifying simple trends and patterns within the loads of collected data, consequently resulting in quantifiable actions that will improve the quality of care.


William Rusnak is a fourth year student at Drexel University College of Medicine, financial investor, writer, and entrepreneur. He writes about topics such as healthcare technology, medical billing software, biotechnology, and nutrition. He is currently applying to residencies with plans to practice in Primary Care and Sports Medicine.


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