Patches to monitor Covid symptoms

A plaster-like sensor to monitor Covid symptoms...
07 July 2020

Interview with 

John Rogers, Northwestern University


image of a stethoscope and a laptop computer


If you’re in hospital, recovering at home, or at work in a high risk environment like a hospital or care home, regular and frequent health monitoring can provide valuable information about how you’re doing regarding covid. Indeed, covid monitoring isn’t limited to the indoors. This week we heard news that monitoring sewage for covid could pick up infection spikes up to 10 days earlier than with medical-based tests. But, back in 2019, Northwestern University’s John Rogers told us about sensor technology he’s developing that can non-invasively collect information such as heart rhythm, body temperature and blood oxygenation. At the time, he had premature babies in mind. But now, he and his colleagues have redeployed the technology to help combat  covid. And in hospitals and homes around Chicago are 100 of these patches, which sit at the bottom of the neck and collect valuable health data about the wearer. John told Katie Haylor about it...

John - Well, they're wearable devices, you know, in the conventional sense of the term. But they're very unusual in their form factor. They're very thin, soft and flexible. They mount on the body just like a band-aid. And when positioned, kind of, at the base of the neck, they operate as a wireless digital stethoscope, is the way that you can think about it. And, you know, it's a device that continuously talks and streams data, to the cell phone. And from those kinds of measurements, you can determine respiratory behaviors and that's important because COVID-19 is essentially a respiratory disease. And so you can measure all sorts of body sounds just like you would with a stethoscope. So you can hear the lub-dub sound of the heart. You can also listen to air rushing into the lungs and during expiration, you can count coughs. You can measure intensity and sounds of coughs. We also have a temperature sensor embedded in the device, so we can pick up early signs of a fever as well.

Katie - How is it powered?

John - There's a tiny battery in the device and it operates the sensor itself. There's an onboard memory module, so we can store data locally. There's also a Bluetooth radio that allows that kind of continuous streaming mode to send data to a cell phone or a tablet.

Katie - How does this monitoring compare to if you had a human do it?

John - Well, it's measuring these quantities continuously, all the time and it's measuring parameters that would be difficult for a human from a practical standpoint to keep track of. It's doing heart rate, essentially, cardiac sounds is kind of the basis of the measurement. Respiratory rate, respiratory rate variability, core body temperature. We also have a module that allows for measurements of blood oxygen levels. And so I assume if you are a super diligent individual and you have a health diary, you could sort of track some of these parameters, but I don't think that's really practical. And in many cases, what we've seen in COVID patients that have had been wearing these devices is some of the key symptoms are very transitory in a timing sense. And so there are spikes in heart rate, for example. And so if you're not tracking and monitoring these parameters continuously, you sort of miss some of the key signs of the symptoms of the disease.

Katie - Is the idea that these would be used in hospitals, in the community, or a bit of both?

John - A bit of both. So we have about a hundred devices deployed in various areas of the medical complex here in Chicago. We were approached by physicians, doctors, pulmonologists, respiratory rehabilitation scientists, and so on in early April. And they were aware of a lot of our work in monitoring of neonatal health. And they asked us whether we could adopt that technology, adapt it and customise it to directly address the key symptoms of COVID-19, which are fever, shortness of breath and coughing. And so that really got us started down this path. And their vision, and one that we share is that these devices can monitor front-line healthcare workers or others who are at a high risk of contracting the disease.

So we can monitor very early signs of symptoms in those individuals, so that they can be pulled out of the community and care can be delivered to them at the earliest possible moment. But we're also on patients at various stages of the disease itself, both in the hospital and after they're released to the home setting. So we can track the progression of the disease. We can determine exactly how their condition is evolving, and how it's responding to the various novel therapies that are being addressed. So we can look at improvements. We can also look at deterioration of that health status. All the data goes to a secure cloud server, which presents the data in a sort of dashboard that physicians can inspect and base judgments on in terms of how to best treat and care for their patients.



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