Last year, Dr. Eric Topol, a leader in cardiology and genomics at Scripps Health, announced sensors as one of the top 10 tech advances that can change medicine. This same prophetic excitement was something I got to experience at the Medical Sensors Design Conference (MSDC) in Newton, MA.
Attending a conference on sensors and sensing technology in healthcare applications was a really niche experience. I went to different talks and sessions on the diverse array of sensors that we are using to augment the human system beyond our five innate senses, as well as the ways in which we understand our bodies and their interaction with the surrounding environment.
Every sensory system in the human body works the same way - sensory receptors receive physical signals from the outside world and then neural circuits transform those signals into action potentials to be sent to the brain. Now, we have developed artificial “sensory receptors” out of conductive metal, silicon, plastic, etc. and mimicked neural processing in the lines of code consisting our analytical algorithms. From wearable thermal tracking, to wireless cardiac monitoring, to smart beds that track biometric data, to sweat sensors that measure levels of glucose, lactate and urea - sensor technology is delivering real value to the healthcare space.
Here are some of my favorite insights from talks at MSDC:
1. Sense > Analyze > Act.
Noa Ghersin from Lux Research laid out the holy trinity of sensor systems. First, sensors need to be able to sense better and cheaper, then that data has to be analyzed and correlated with behavior, and then that insight must be communicated in a digestible way and acted upon by the user. The farther downstream along this pathway a device can go, the better.
2. Sensors can strengthen the doctor-patient relationship.
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum drew from anecdotes in her years as a practicing cardiologist to illustrate a communication gap and the information asymmetry between doctors and patients. Giving patients tools, like remote ECG, to self-monitor and assess their own data, they are more engaged in their health and with physicians. This communication and data exchange between patients and physicians can happen real-time and empower a dialogue between patients and physicians as symptoms occur.
3. Managed sensor ecosystem is necessary.
Dr. Hermann Schindler proposed that health data is the new “oil” which needs refining through AI. Moreover, he called for a paradigm shift in creating a managed ecosystem in which different sensors work together.
4. Hardware to analytics…
Greg Tracey, co-founder and CTO of Propeller Health, created his startup around a sensor for respiratory devices but slowly evolved into a hardware-enabled software company, upon realizing that simply dropping hardware into people’s lives is not helpful without analytics for the users’ experiences. It’s the industry’s responsibility to provide consumers with their personal data in a way that is personalized and makes sense to them. “If you’re on Google Maps and you’re looking for a restaurant, we should also tell you where you’ve struggled in the past. If we know from your Google Calendar that you’re traveling to Boston next week, we should give you an asthma forecast in Boston, not in Madison,” he said. “It should just be ambient. It should be wherever you are.”
5. ...And then back again.
A different problem area was also discussed that same day at the conference when Dr. Wasim Malik, Director for Harvard/MIT Laboratory for Neuromotor Signal Processing, spoke about his work on BrainGate. He spoke about the limitations of current implantable microelectrode arrays and how these sensors need to sample more of the brain's neurons. He also discussed how the alternate approach using scalp EEG required major improvements in signal acquisition. In the case of understanding the brain, the hardware, not the analytics, is the limiting factor.
In a sense (if you’ll forgive my belaboring of this pun), sensors have been augmenting the human experience long before the kinds of gadgets we’re seeing at the MSDC. The first “wearables,” if you will, were magnifying glasses Emperor Nero used to watch gladiator fights at the Coliseum. Some 2,000 years later, we’ve developed sensors that can help blind people see again using a prosthetic eye with electrodes that stimulate ganglion cells. Though we’ve come a long way, the next challenge lies in improving sensor hardware accuracy and managing analytics in the healthcare space in order to be truly meaningful to physicians and patients.