Smart patches could help prevent strokes through early detection of heart arrythmia

Smart wearable technology has been progressing in recent years, but for mass adoption across the healthcare sector this needs to be comfortable, convenient, and cost-effective. New innovations in flexible electronics have brought us one step closer to this vision. In this blog post, Dr Richard Price, CTO at PragmatIC, focuses in on how smart patches could help save lives through early detection in patients at risk of stroke.

Background

smart healthcare

Every year, more than 100,000 people suffer from strokes in the UK – it is the leading cause of death and disability in the country. Globally, stroke is the second leading cause of death after heart disease. Besides the immeasurable toll on patients and families, strokes are a huge drain on the UK’s overburdened healthcare system. It is estimated that the aggregate societal cost of stroke is £26 billion per year, including £8.6 billion across the NHS and social care.

Doctors are of the opinion that if a stroke can be detected early enough, there can be a massive improvement in patient recovery. This is one of the key messages of the NHS’ Act FAST programme: even a minute’s delay in receiving treatment can translate into a lifetime of lost opportunities for the patient. And one of the earliest warnings for stroke is extremely simple to detect – an irregular heartbeat or arrythmia.

Arrhythmia is an abnormality of the heart's rhythm, when the heart beats too slowly, too quickly, or irregularly. Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a strong risk factor for life-threatening diseases such as stroke. AF happens when the heartbeat is irregular and, usually, abnormally fast. Early detection of AF can save lives.

Preventative monitoring 

In many cases, arrhythmia remains undiagnosed until the patient is admitted to the hospital after having a stroke, which can lead to even more complex problems for the patient. There are a number of studies which show preventative monitoring of atrial fibrillation can help improve outcomes in at-risk patients. This recent study found that frequent screening for AF through quarterly ECGs before the onset of symptoms and the use of anticoagulants could help to prevent the occurrence of strokes. However, access to ECG machines is limited to hospitals or in ambulances. Even equipping every GP with an ECG monitor in their surgeries would not allow us to screen the whole population this frequently. Another study showed that regular monitoring can also help patients who have already had a stroke, as the researchers picked up four times as many incidences of atrial fibrillation using an inserted cardiac monitor when compared to intermittent monitoring.

Ideal form factor

Although smart devices to monitor heart rhythm exist, examples currently in the marketplace do not have an ideal form factor due to the presence of bulky electronic components such as PCBs, microcontrollers and batteries. Cost is also significant typically $100s per device. If the conventional electronic components built on Silicon can be replaced by truly flexible tech such as natively flexible microprocessors, it would be possible to create a product that is significantly thinner and more comfortable for the wearer, almost like a conventional adhesive plaster. Such flexible components would also significantly reduce the cost of smart patches and democratise their use.

PragmatIC is working with partners on developing machine learning (ML)-based arrythmia detection/prediction algorithms and new flexible electronic components that can be used to create a new generation of low-cost ECG smart patch demonstrators.

Once we can create truly ‘wearable tech’ that is easy to apply and comfortable to wear on a daily basis, there are a huge range of applications that could improve outcomes for elderly patients along with the early detection of arrythmia. A few examples include providing advanced warning of sepsis, reducing the costs of monitoring diabetes, and detecting urinary tract infections in dementia patients.

Improving care services

Preventative monitoring of health conditions through affordable smart technology can also have a massive impact on care services for elderly patients. McKinsey predicts that up to $265 billion of care services in the US could shift to the home by 2025, representing up to 25% of the cost of care and a 4x increase over today’s level.

New innovations in flexible electronics have brought us one step closer to this vision, because they can resolve challenges to wide-scale adoption due to form factor and cost. Deloitte predicts that in 20 years, sensors will be ubiquitously collecting health data in us, on us and around us, and joining this with other data to generate personalised and actionable care insights.

Along with cutting-edge research in flexible batteries and displays, PragmatIC’s low-cost flexible electronics can be key to accelerating the pace of innovation and making it more widely accessible, including for those in developing countries without easy access to tertiary healthcare. It has the potential to modernise healthcare and save millions of lives in the process.

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