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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Wearable Technology Goes to the Hospital

How a smart T-shirt could replace that dreaded hospital gown.

  • September 28, 2011

Among the many not-fun things about going to the hospital is that the place has no fashion sense. What’s even worse, as you may have noted, is that those inelegant gowns they make you wear lack embedded technology to measure your vital signs and pinpoint your location within two-meters. Well, no more!

Researchers at the Unversidad Carlos III in Madrid (UC3M, for short) have developed an intelligent shirt that can monitor a patient’s temperature, heart rate, and other vital signs; it can also locate a patient within a two-meter margin of error, like an eagle-eyed GPS, and it can tell nurses or doctors whether the patient is sitting, lying down, or moving about. And it’s all wireless.

It’s just the beginning, claims the university in a press release: “With slight modifications, the prototype can also be applied in other areas, such as applications involving early diagnosis of cardiac anomalies in athletes, or for telemedicine, to monitor patients in [their] homes, thus reducing the time they must remain admitted to the hospital.” You can also configure the device to alert the doctor if certain parameters are exceeded–if the patient’s heart starts beating at over 100 beats per minute, or if the patient starts running a fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, say. The shirt is washable, despite all the tech it packs.

What’s most intriguing, perhaps, is the localization unit that pinpoints the patient’s location so precisely. As you can see around the 0:45 mark in the video here (in Spanish), the device can tell you almost exactly where in the hospital ward your patient is. Have a few researchers in Madrid somehow outdone the entire GPS industry?

Not quite. The localization unit, which is currently worn separately from the shirt, activates itself periodically to receive signals from other units in the area. The patient’s location is triangulated in this way, and that information is fed to the hospital’s system. So don’t expect to see GPS that can tell you what room you happen to be in on your smart phone just yet.

Wearable technology can sometimes seem an oddball field, a realm for DIY enthusiasts and conceptual artists sooner than for serious technologists–but as it enters realms like the hospital, wearable tech appears to be growing into a real industry. It’s not the first time researchers have proposed using wearable technology in the hospital–consider, for instance, earlier reports of electronic underpants that text you when you wet yourself.

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