Vox Pop: 'Wearable tech is going to become increasingly important in healthcare'

Vox Pop, wearable tech

Wearable technology is now entering what Internet of Healthy Things author Joseph Kvedar has called the ‘me too’ phase of its development. On the healthcare side of things, this is perhaps reflected in a second wave of what some are calling ‘medical-grade  wearables’ coming into being. We asked Dr Heather Duncan, Consultant at Birmingham Children’s Hospital (BCH) and Anaesthetist Dr David Williams of Morriston Hospital, Swansea, how wearables are revolutionising the life of the patient and healthcare professional alike.

(BJ-HC/ Vox Pop) In their 15 years of working together, Dr David Williams and Dr John Dingley, consultant anaesthetists at Morriston Hospital in Swansea, have invented numerous gadgets to make healthcare professionals’ lives easier in their spare time. No less, a new wearable device that can project a continuous display of the patient’s vital signs into the physician’s field of view, enabling them to focus more completely on precision work.

Could you tell us a little about your new invention, how it works and how it could make anaesthetists’ – and other healthcare professionals’ - lives easier?

There are many times, as an anaesthetist, when your attention is tied up with performing a specific task – from inserting a line to administering an epidural –which takes your attention away from the monitor. It may be that something happens suddenly to the patient’s vital signs that you’re not able to see because you’re focusing on whatever procedure you’re involved in - you simply can’t focus on both the patient and the monitor at the same time.

So the idea of our new gadget – which was inspired by Google Glass – is that by having that information continuously in the corner of your field of view, you can be aware much more quickly of any adverse change than if you’re continuously having to turn and look at the monitor. And, unlike Google Glass, our device can be worn on top of spectacles.

The new device, which is worn as a headband over one eye, has the potential to make patient transmission and surgery much safer by having that information always there, meaning that the clinician can respond more rapidly to changes in the patient’s condition.

So in what healthcare applications do you see this new piece of technology being most useful?

The device, which we’re calling Vivi, can be used by all sorts of medical professionals – we’re thinking paramedics, anaesthetists, surgeons, anywhere where people need a continuous awareness of vital signs.

The other place it could be particularly useful is in patient transfer - in the back of an ambulance or helicopter, for instance. Often in those circumstances the monitor is positioned in such a place where it’s very difficult to see if not impossible to keep an eye on both the patient and the monitoring display simultaneously. Having a wearable display that is very lightweight with a long battery life could be extremely useful!

And because it can be produced at a lower cost than anything comparable, it also has potential applications as a single-use, disposable device, which will be appropriate for environments where infection control is a necessity. 

What would your advice be to innovators seeking to get their inventions into routine practice?

I am a great believer in the theory that with just 20 hours’ practice you can become adequately good at most skills – whether learning a language, playing most sports or even a musical instrument!

Most of the skills that John and I have learnt while developing our inventions – in microelectronics and computer programming for example – can be picked up from the internet. There’s so much out there now. Even without resources you can go a very long way.

We’re also both big fans of the maker movement which encourages people to get actively involved in technology, to repair, reuse and make their own tech, rather than becoming passive users. I’d advise anyone who’s interested in following a similar path to get involved in the maker movement.

The real challenge of course is not so much in making a prototype, however, but it’s when you come to the next step - getting finance to develop your device and make it into something that’s commercially viable!

Are there any key messages that we haven’t covered that CIOs and healthcare leaders might be interested to know?

I think that wearable tech is going to become increasingly important within healthcare, with devices that have wireless connectivity playing an increasingly important role in healthcare management. Those who can develop new and innovative ways of developing such technology for application in a healthcare environment will be much sought after.

Having said that, a lot of the people who create the technology that healthcare professionals are using have little or no knowledge of how these sectors work. John and I, being in full-time roles in the industry – and being in the clinical environment and constantly thinking about how we can improve what we see and experience every day – are, of course, at a distinct advantage.

Dr David Williams MBChB, FRCA, DipDHM, PGCME has been a Consultant Anaesthetist at Morriston Hospital, Swansea since 2003. He has also been a Senior Clinical Tutor at Cardiff and Swansea Universities since 2005 and in 2014 was awarded the position of Honorary Associate Professor by the College of Medicine, Swansea University. He has published over 100 peer-reviewed academic articles, and is Physics Speciality Editor for the journal Anaesthesia and Intensive Care Medicine. He is also director of four university spin-out companies, which have received numerous awards.

His media appearances have included the Today programme, BBC News, BBC World News, Dragons’ Den and The Discovery Channel.