FHE-powered devices are transforming the human monitoring industry, resulting in increased patient comfort.
By Scott Miller, NextFlex
Wearable medical devices for human monitoring are becoming increasingly common and refined. As new pieces of medical technology are created and older pieces are evaluated for efficacy and comfort, there is an opportunity to use cutting-edge electronics, especially flexible hybrid electronics (FHE), to enable new methods of human monitoring.
Why flexible hybrid electronics?
Flexible hybrid electronics combine the additive manufacturing approaches for electronics fabrication with the performance of thinned semiconductor devices and discrete components. This combination means the resulting devices can be stretchable, conformable, flexible, or integrated into and onto structures. By enabling new form factors, FHE enable new functionality and create opportunity for people to interact differently with electronic devices.
This malleable quality makes FHE well-suited for use in medical technology, particularly wearable devices, because it allows for an improved user experience. Monitoring devices that conform to the body and move with the wearer enable greater mobility and increased comfort. It also provides options for how monitors can be worn; FHE powers the technology behind skin-adhered sensing patches, e-textile smart garments, and more.
Flexible patient care
One example of a company utilizing flexible hybrid electronics to revolutionize human monitoring is CranioSense and its Intracranial Pressure and Assessment Screening System (IPASS).
Measuring intracranial pressure (ICP) is important in diagnosing and monitoring people with severe traumatic brain injuries or other conditions that could cause swelling of the brain. Currently, the standard practice for measuring ICP requires drilling a hole through the skull to allow measurement of pressure on the brain. This is generally only done in an operating room or intensive care unit. The procedure can be quite uncomfortable even with pain management, and carries significant risk.
External and noninvasive ICP measurements, such as with an IPASS monitor, can eliminate the need for this surgery and improve patient care. To take a reading, an electronic patch is applied to the forehead, two clip-on sensors and placed on an ear and finger, and a handheld device approximately the size of an iPad measures electrical signals.
Since the system is non-invasive, it is far more comfortable for patients and can be used at earlier stages of diagnosis when surgery is not yet necessary. Additionally, it can be used at the location where the injury occurs, whether it be a football field or a battlefield, to promptly assess the patient’s condition. Because surgery is not required, no patient recovery is required from the measurement and the inherent surgical risks are eliminated.
FHE and the future
Flexible hybrid electronics are already changing medical devices in exciting ways, but there are still advancements to be made. My team and I frequently speak to and collaborate with industry leaders across a variety of industries, including medical product design and manufacturing. Through these conversations, we have identified current technological capabilities and manufacturing gaps through the development of forward-looking roadmaps to address how, through collaborative development with industry, academia, and government, these challenges can be overcome.
One area of exploration is wound monitoring and smart drug delivery. This could make a dramatic difference in the lives of patients with chronic, non-healing wounds such as diabetic ulcers, while reducing the workload on medical practitioners. These two tasks can be combined, as demonstrated by Caltech and the smart bandage prototype developed in their lab, which performs several key functions:
- Monitoring pH level, temperature, and the presence of certain molecules for signs of infection
- Transmitting data to a nearby smart device
- Delivering an antibiotic stored in the bandage
- Delivering a low-level electric field to stimulate tissue growth
Another area of exploration is improving complex integrated systems such as electronics embedded into textiles. Some such devices already exist and are being used on patients, like the Siren Diabetic Sock and Foot Monitoring System. These socks integrate sensors into the fabric to continually assess the health of a diabetic person’s foot for signs of ulcers. This increases the likelihood of early detection of an ulcer so the patient can receive the necessary treatments to avoid infection and the associated complications. Each pair lasts approximately one month, which highlights another area of improvement for integrated wearable systems: increased longevity.
Finally, it is important to continue improving upon disposable monitors and, in turn, develop more sustainable options. In particular, a collection of industry leaders identified biodegradable electronics as a topic to further explore as a means to reduce the electronic waste associated with single-patient use medical devices. While this is a developing field, it is showing promise and would help decrease the environmental impact of these important monitoring devices.
We have opened the door to take human monitoring devices to the next level by taking advantage of flexible hybrid electronics’ unique capabilities to better care for patients. Now, it is time to continue to explore what is possible, as well as improve and refine options for patients.
Scott Miller, director of technology at NextFlex, Scott is responsible for the portfolio of NextFlex-funded Project Calls, runs its Technical Council and Technical Working Groups, leads the development of FHE industry roadmapping, oversees initiatives within the NextFlex Manufacturing USA institute, builds and maintains relationships with government and industry partners, and is actively engaged with many of the agency-driven projects that NextFlex executes with partner organizations. Miller previously led materials R&D groups at GE Global Research supporting a diverse range of businesses and has worked in areas including printed, flexible, and hybrid electronics; wearable devices; additive manufacturing; and bioprinting and biofabrication.
The opinions expressed in this blog post are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect those of Medical Design & Outsourcing or its employees.