New gadgets could help monitor chronic conditions

February 16, 2015
Written By:
Laurel Thomas

ANN ARBOR—Researchers at the University of Michigan are developing small devices with new technologies for patients to monitor their chronic conditions, particularly the elderly and those in underserved populations.

Professor David Burke describes a scenario that could be an outcome of the work he and colleagues are doing with their project, Deep Monitoring, which has received $1.4 million—a second infusion of funding from the U-M Third Century Initiative.

“I’d like to see every doctor’s office with a basket of temperature-monitoring devices instead of pens that they hand out to patients and say, ‘Here these are free. Take three, one for your upstairs and downstairs bathrooms, and one for your glove compartment,’ ” said Burke, professor of human genetics at the U-M Medical School.

The goal: to allow patients to send important, trusted data to a physician that can help monitor a health condition without the need for face-to-face interaction.

For this second grant, the team specifically will target low-resource locations in Michigan, rural Jamaica and Ghana.

The technologies, some of which already have been developed in the first phase and are ready for further testing and refinement are: wireless temperature and sound sensors; wireless aqueous chemistry (urine) detectors; quantitative 3-D eye-imaging and recording systems; and interactive personal health interfaces for the elderly.

“The challenge is developing devices that are easy to use so patients of all skill levels will use them and have the data be high enough quality that the medical professionals will trust them,” said Mark Burns, the T. C. Chang Professor of Engineering, chair and professor of the Department of Chemical Engineering.

These are not complex technologies, Burns said, but they show that good quality data can come from devices and systems that are inexpensive and that have the potential to change the way health care is delivered, particularly in remote areas.

Even with the rapid advancement of technology, mass producing inexpensive health monitoring devices is a relatively untapped area.

“The commercial developers don’t see the value of it,” Burke said. “There’s not much profit—there’s value to the health care system but not a lot of profit in low cost individual devices.”

At least not now, he said, until someone does it first.

“So we asked, can we look at the technology we have and use the power of U-M—the clinics, physicians, engineers, and public health and social sciences researchers?” Burke said. “Can we use our resources and our knowledge of engineering, manufacturing and manufacturing infrastructure to target consumer devices that yield quality data that physicians can believe?”

The temperature device already developed and currently costing less than $5 is being tested as a means to record limb temperatures that could signal inflammation in diabetes patients.

The sound sensor, for less than $20, serves as a remote stethoscope, allowing health care professionals to monitor breathing for patients.

A device currently about $40 is a first-generation urine chemistry sensor for analysis of kidney function, another tool that can be used for monitoring patients with chronic diabetes who are at risk for kidney failure.

During the first phase, the team also assessed various eye-imaging devices in clinical environments in rural Jamaica and at the U-M Kellogg Eye Center, and then, with Michigan-based commercial partners Medar Inc., designed a preliminary system for high-resolution 3-D eye-imaging and measurement. When optimized, the system might also be used to monitor reflexive and directed neurological responses, and detect changes in blood flow that could signal eye disease.

Another item, yet to be developed, would involve creating an age-appropriate technology interface that would capture and quantify information from an individual using low-cost sensors. This project acknowledges the challenges older adults face with current technologies like smartphones and tablets, so it will involve use of more conventional television monitors and an adaptation of video game-like motion recognition interfaces.

The Global Challenges for a Third Century grant program seeks to inspire ideas about how to tackle some of the world’s greatest problems. The grants come from a $50 million fund dedicated to transforming teaching and scholarship, as U-M approaches its bicentennial in 2017 and plans for the university’s third century.


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