Engineering 101

Flexible Electronics Are the Future in Wearable Health Monitoring

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While traditional electronic systems have an inherently rigid form factor, developments in manufacturing processes and materials are enabling a new world of flexible electronics. Just last year several foldable smartphones were revealed to the market.

In a new research report titled ‘Flexible Electronics in Healthcare 2020–2030’, IDTechEx analysts find significant opportunities for flexible electronics to be applied to healthcare. In this report, IDTechEx forecasts the market for healthcare products containing flexible electronics to be worth over $8.3 billion by the year 2030.

There is a significant market trend towards decentralized healthcare and utilizing technologies to monitor and care for people remotely. During the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare systems around the world rapidly deployed remote care services in the form of telehealth. Such efforts often need to be supported by devices in the home that are capable of providing medical grade data. But ultimately, monitoring efforts rely on the correct use of the devices.

Traditionally, patient compliance to medical interventions is low, as is the long-term use of wearable devices in general. Patient comfort and familiarity to the technology may help to improve low adherence.

Flexible by Design

One way to address patient adherence to monitoring is to make the device unobtrusive to the point of invisibility. Electronic skin patches, wearable devices that are electronic components adhered to the skin, are one such way to address this. A physician could apply the device to the patient’s body and send them home to continue their daily routine. The data can be wirelessly transmitted back to the physician or collected at the end of the monitoring period. Other devices can be fitted by the patients themselves.

While some electronic skin patches are simply electronic boxes on a plaster, flexible electronics can provide opportunities to improve comfort. The new report from IDTechEx presents the market landscape for electronic skin patches in monitoring patients both inside and outside the hospital, with focus on ambulatory cardiac monitoring, diabetes management, temperature, and motion monitoring.

Another way to address patient adherence to health monitoring is to make the intervention familiar to the patient. Humans spend 98% of our lives in contact with textiles, making smart textiles that monitor vital signs another way that flexible electronics can be used in healthcare. IDTechEx has found that health monitoring will be a significant market for e-textiles, supplemented by monitoring for wellness and sports. Opportunities exist from smart shirts to smart socks, smart underwear and even smart bedsheets.

Flexible by Nature

Also included in the new IDTechEx report on flexible electronics in healthcare are two product categories that are flexible due to their manufacturing process.

The glucose test strip is one of the greatest commercial successes of printed electronics due to the latter’s ability to offer low cost manufacturing. At-home blood glucose tests are flexible as they are printed on a flexible substrate. Home testing is essential for diabetics who monitor their blood glucose on a daily basis.

Printed electronics also offers significant benefits to smart packaging. For example, a patient’s adherence to their medication can be tracked through smart blister packs enabled by printed electronics. Poor medication adherence sends up to a million people into emergency departments every year. Through smart blister packs, physicians can get an idea of whether health issues are due to medications not working, or if a patient is simply not taking them.

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