A team of Chinese researchers have come up with a new technology for medical diagnosis. It takes the form of film which, when worn on the skin, can monitor a person’s vital signs in real time.

Flexible wearables give patients back control over their data

Wearable electronic devices are nowadays seeing increasingly sophisticated technological progress. In a recent development, Chinese Researcher-Professor Ting Zhang and his team at the Suzhou Institute of Nano-Tech and Nano-Bionics (SINANO) have invented a small thin wearable designed to monitor the wearer’s vital signs – blood pressure, heart rate, wrist pulse and so on – and promptly provide the person with the relevant data. To create this amazing ‘e-skin’, the SINANO team use reduced graphene oxide, a new material derived from chemically modified graphene, as its main component. Its ultra-flexible surface means it can incorporate electronic systems which are just a few atoms thick.

The SINANO team use carbon nanotubes and sheets of graphene to make the electronic device. Affixed directly to the skin like a bandage, the electronic e-skin accommodates highly sensitive sensors which can detect the smallest changes in pressure and so can track the wearer’s biometric data – pulse, blood pressure, oxygenation et al – in real time.

This device indicates a shift away from solid physical objects such as connected bracelets, watches, Google Glass etc. towards something more like a ‘smart’ bandage. It stands out from existing devices in that its ultra-sensitive sensors provide highly precise measurements. Its inventors claim this type of wearable is potentially capable of providing an immediate assessment of the overall state of a person’s health plus specific diagnosis of any pathological condition, in real time.

The flexible e-skin (a) and the various tests carried out to demonstrate its ultra-sensitivity

Central to the thinking of Professor Zhang’s research team is the desire to restore pride of place to the patient in the entire medical process. Obtaining a fast analysis, enabling specific medical tests to be carried out on receipt of the assessment, looks certain to help save time for both patients and medical practitioners. By providing the wearer/patient with all available information on his/her own health, Professor Zhang and his team are looking to elevate the patient’s role, making it central to the process, thus relegating the health practitioner to the status of a professional supplying a service.

This research work, which is funded by China’s National Natural Science Foundation and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, could be a pointer to the future of wearables. This could prove to be a crucial shift in emphasis, given that wearables are now becoming part of the analysis process carried out by patients, with a view to taking preventative action, and are also being increasingly used by medical professionals, inter alia as part of post-operative follow-up.

By Anthéa Delpuech