The data economy: The future of health care is data based - I

A variety of bio-stamps, sensors like tattoo on the skin, will provide continuous data for health monitoring and care. Credit: IEEE Spectrum

Sensors need not be ugly, they can actually become fashionable. Like this butterfly that can pick up a variety of physiological data. Artistic rendering by IEEE Spectrum

Sensors in a sock monitor the pulse and oxygenation of a baby sending alarms to the smart phone via bluetooth. Credit:

I have read a very good overview on the future of Health Care provided by IEEE Spectrum. What is clear is the growing role of data in the management of Health Care with implications on both the quality of our life and the economic cost to the Society as a whole.

Health Care is a big chunk of any Country budget, the more advanced (wealthy) that Country the bigger the chunk (as an example 3 trillion $ in US, 120 billion € in Italy). And the growth of health care spending is hampering its economic sustainability.  
So far technology evolution, both in monitoring and curing, has increased the cost of health care, of course making it possible to detect root causes of many pathologies and cure them in a way never possibile before. The reduction in cost determined by shorter hospitalisation time has been offset by the larger cost of equipment like robotic for surgery, advanced diagnostics and so on.

Now we are seeing a turning point where the evolution of technology will both result in better health care and lower cost.

Welcome to the era of Data Economics in Health Care, underpinned by strong technology evolution.

The Data Economics in Health Care can be structured into three main blocks: 

  • data creation (conversion on physiological processes into digital data for monitoring purposes),
  • data analyses (that can be done on site, that is on/in the body, or in the cloud, that is anywhere else) and
  • data enaction (turning the knowledge derived by data into health care actions).

The Spectrum paper has a sentence, at the very beginning, that made quite an impression on me: "a baby could be instrumented at birth to provide a continuous stream of data". Now this can be somewhat scary, as it happens with so many new technologies that touch our life in an unusual way. However, if you think about it, two/three centuries ago there were similar reactions and concern about the vaccination of babies (and somehow the debates still continues to these days), and yet it has become "normal". 

Vaccination didn't happen overnight. Neither will the "sensorisation" of our bodies. It will be subtle, first happening in very special cases for people having a specific pathology (like diabetes) then it will extend to areas at the edge of health care, like fitness, there involving more and more people (EIT Digital is working in this area) , and gradually it will reach the point of "instrumenting babies". I have very little doubt on this.

Smart watches, smart bands, smart shoes are already existing. Critics point out that the data harvested by these devices are far from accurate and cannot replace medical exams (and their cost). But this is changing. Better sensors and much better data analyses will provide effective, cheaper and better, data that will replace many of those medical exams and it will keep growing. At the University of Illinois researchers are creating accurate tattoo-like sensors, called BioStamps, able to detect temperature, perspiration, biochemistry, blood pressure, oxygenation and much more. These Biostamps are already in clinical trial and are targeting the market early next year through a company based in Massachusetts, MC10, I already discussed in some previous posts.

A BioStamp can contain hundreds of thousands of transistors and all other components, including LEDs, making up a chip in a package that is flexible and extremely thin that can be glued to the body skin. You can read the manufacturing process in the Spectrum article. What is important is that the manufacturing cost is a few tens of cents which makes them affordable and ... disposable. Our body skin sheds over time and after a week, or just a little more, the BioStamps will detach itself and need be replaced.

The basic function of a BioStamp is to harvest a specific set of data and to communicate them to a point where they can be analysed. For this they need a bit of power and they get it from radio waves, like the ones generated by NFC in your smart phone. At a distance of 1 meter, which is within the range of your smartphone, the BioStamp can harvest a few milliwatts of power, what is needed to operate it.

Normally no processing takes place in the BioStamp although it is possibile to insert a microprocessor in it, its size in the order of 5 to 10 µm, so tiny that they are not hampering the flexibility of the BioStamp.

Different BioStamps, as shown in the figure, harvest different types of data and for that they require different "circuitry". The evolution is towards embedding more circuitry inside a single BioStamp to be able to harvest different sets of data although in some cases the location on the body of the BioStamp matters and in this case you need to have more of them to capture the variety of data. Another evolution is towards the integration of a thin flexible battery that can sustain operation of the BioStamp when no radio power is accessible, although for most of data harvesting power continuity is actually not a strong requirement.

BioStamps can cover a quite breath of health care data. Interesting the fact the L'Oreal, the cosmetic company, is considering BioStamps to detect UV exposure to inform the person when it is time to reapply sunscreen...

Of course it is not just BioStamps (see another example in the third figure...). I took them as an example of the evolution in the area of capturing physiological data from the body. Again, for a more in depth and broader overview in this area read the IEEE Spectrum article.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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