Medical Wearables: Designing for Daily Life

Consumers have grown accustomed to personal and wearable electronics, including personal wellness monitors like step trackers. Building on this trend, the medical market is innovating wearables that monitor vitals and health conditions. Continued advances in the technology have made it possible for such devices to effectively diagnose conditions and apply therapies, which can produce more positive outcomes and improve millions of lives.
Digital drug delivery devices are one of the targets of medical wearable development. They illustrate the promise of therapeutic wearables by delivering real-time dosage adjustments, thus reducing the risk of over- or under-medication. For example, low-profile, flexible drug-delivery patches have been developed with smart electronics that administer medicines, such as a continuous glucose monitor on a patient’s arm that sends signals to activate their insulin pump. Wearables could also be used to administer pain management, chemotherapy, antiviral medications and immunosuppressants.

These devices can make treatment more convenient for patients, improving medication compliance and, ultimately, outcomes. In a recent  Molex survey of pharmaceutical professionals  from companies with a digital drug-delivery strategy, 69% of respondents cited the drive to improve patient engagement as one of the factors driving their organizations’ interest in drug-delivery solutions.

However, to optimize the benefits of remote healthcare, engineers need to design wearables that encourage regular use by addressing durability and reliability requirements and also providing both patient comfort and cost-effective development.

Conforming to the Realities of Patients’ Lives
Glucose monitoring patches were a leap forward for diabetic care, and while technologically effective, comfort and unobtrusiveness were just as important in their design to promote widespread adoption. In other words, for wearables to reach their potential in improving healthcare delivery, these devices, including their components, must conform and stand up to the realities of daily life.

For example, human life requires flexibility and variety to meet all lifestyle considerations. So, devices and their circuitry must fit, flex and stretch to accommodate myriad body types and sizes. Additionally, to encourage sustained patient use, wearables will need to withstand the rigors of day-to-day living. Circuitry will have to provide reliable performance while moving with the body, undergoing repetitive bending and flexing. And it must withstand other realities of human existence, such as moisture due to sweating and bathing, occasional shocks and bumps, and the need for reliable performance over the course of days, weeks or even months.

Managing Shrinking Real Estate
Wearables must also be lightweight and have a low profile so users feel unencumbered by their presence. But as devices shrink, design challenges grow. Routing circuits along curved surfaces and in multiple directions on any axis will help engineers mitigate space constraints. In fact, circuitry that can bend around packaging and fold to fit in miniaturized enclosures while being relatively lightweight contribute to patient mobility and comfort.

Providing Ease of Use
Making sure that a wearable is easy to use means both patients and healthcare professionals find the device intuitive, a view shared by many pharmaceutical professionals. Molex’s survey finds that 39% of them believe digital drug-delivery devices can be difficult for patients to use and this creates a barrier to adoption. However, development of human machine interfaces (HMIs) promotes usability by making the experience more similar to that of consumer devices. By enabling wireless communication and capacitive buttons, printed electronics can enhance HMIs from both the patient and provider perspectives, making medical and drug-delivery wearables more like the devices they already use every day.

Reliable Power and Affordability
For wearables to truly fulfill their promise of providing remote healthcare, they require reliable, compact power sources—in other words, small batteries that have energy density and also offer robustness. Additionally, power sources and other electronic components that make up wearable devices need to be cost-effective. About 37% of pharmaceutical professionals surveyed by Molex cite high costs as a drug-delivery device hindrance. Unlike costly hospital equipment meant for repeated and long-term use, devices that individuals wear in their homes and throughout their days need to be affordable to achieve widespread adoption.

Improving the Effectiveness of Next-Gen Medical Devices
Ergonomics, human factors, HMI. All of these terms refer to medical wearable designs that merge seamlessly with people’s everyday lives. When the requirements of comfort, size and scale, usability, reliability and affordability are met, medical and drug-delivery wearables will make healthcare look very different from the reality of today. Imagine a smart bandage that’s deployed in the field—for example, in a fitness center next to the defibrillator. It’s applied on the injured person and transmits information to paramedics as they drive to the accident scene, and then is disposed of when use is over. Cancer drug delivery is another powerful example. The patient receives chemotherapy in the comfort of their own home through a wearable device. Whether it’s simplicity of use or improved medication adherence, remote solutions and therapies make it easier and more economical for patients to receive treatment and, assuming adherence is achieved, it will result in better outcomes.

A world with better healthcare and healthier people is a real possibility, and innovative design and engineering hold the keys to making it a reality.