An ingested sensor that tracks heart rate sends a signal to pull a firefighter from a burning building before cardiac distress sets in. A pocket-sized device sends a reading of blood alcohol content to an offender's probation officer. And a placebo-and-patch combo monitors whether patients take their medications at the right time.
While consumer devices such as Fitbit have taken off, the next boom in wearable technology will come from electronics that can be ingested or implanted to measure the body's rhythms and rates, according to the World Economic Forum. A few governments are already benefiting from these technologies.
Jonathan Collins, principal analyst for ABI Research, says that body-adaptive wearables offer new ways to automate patient data collection for government healthcare agencies, making better use of doctors' and nurses' time. Across departments, in fact, such devices can boost efficiency by supporting "exception management" — identifying and handling anomolous situations (such as those described above with firefighters and substance abusers).
Devices worn on or near the body, such as R.A.D.A.R., the Real-Time Alcohol Detection and Recognition system created by Emerge Monitoring (recently purchased by SecureAlert), also show promise for corrections and public safety applications.
R.A.D.A.R. gives Blake Poindexter, executive director of Wells County Community Corrections in Bluffton, Ind., an "immediate screening tool," he says. "If we find they're using alcohol, we always have an officer follow up." At any given time, the county monitors the activities of 50 to 90 offenders, about half of whom must submit to breath tests periodically.
Thousands of miles away, in Australia, firefighters are testing a data-transmitting pill that can detect early signs of heat stress. Users ingest the pill, and the body later eliminates it. Peter Langridge, a health and safety officer for Country Fire Authority Victoria, says the Equivital EQ02 LifeMonitor capsule transmits data that enables officials to measure a firefighter's core body temperature — the gold standard in terms of assessing their safety as they work.
LifeMonitor also measures other vital signs and tracks each user's location at the site, including whether he or she is standing up or lying down. Langridge says there have been two occasions where Equivital has shown noticeable changes in working firefighters' heart rates, prompting their removal from the fire to prevent cardiac arrest.
Some manufacturers are keeping cost efficiency in mind as they develop products. "We are leveraging microchip technology to make tons of these sensors at low cost," says Robin Suchan, corporate communications manager for Proteus Digital Health.
The company's digital health feedback system delivers a sensor via a placebo that, when swallowed by a patient, sends information to a patch worn on the patient's body.
England's National Health Service is now testing the system in four regions. Possible applications include support for patients who are transitioning to home-based care or information capture for a study gauging a population's blood-pressure levels.