In-Body Sensors Could Warn Doctors

In-body wireless sensors sound like sci-fi, but could be medicine's future.

May 12, 2008 — -- In the next 10 to 20 years, the technology that allows us to use wireless headsets to chat on our cell phones could keep doctors in the loop on your blood sugar levels, your blood pressure and if you have a sudden heart attack, according to a report released in the United Kingdom last week.

According to a report released by Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for communications industries in the United Kingdom, humans could one day have "in-body networks," a series of sensors implanted in a patient's body to let doctors monitor the body remotely.

The report also predicted the creation of "on-body monitors," wearable devices that would send vital information like blood pressure via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to a portable monitor such as a watch or a cell phone. Both technologies are being researched in U.K. universities.

In theory, devices such as this could transmit information that you were having a heart attack or a stroke to the nearest emergency room or to your doctor.

Although it sounds like the stuff of science fiction, emergency room doctors say that the technology sounds possible in theory, but it could face problems in real emergency rooms.

Dr. Sheldon Jacobson, the Department of Emergency Medicine chair at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says that alongside high-tech pacemakers and internal defibrillators, this type of monitoring system wouldn't be that difficult to imagine.

"It wouldn't be that much of a technological feat to have that information transmitted to an answering station," Jacobson said. "With the current technology it's a very likely situation that can happen. … [The question is] to whom would you want to do it and why would you want to do it?"

For example, people who have heart attacks are often alone and often have them in their sleep, according to Jacobson. People who are especially high risk have an internal defibrillator placed inside.

"If for some reason you didn't want an internal defibrillator, they could have a sensor placed that had a communication that would monitor their hearts," Jacobson said. "I don't know that there's a big need for it, but it might fill a small niche."

Similarly, Richard O'Brien, an emergency doctor at Moses Taylor Hospital and a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, sees problems trading wireless exchanges of information for face-to-face care.

"I think it's an odd concept," O'Brien said. "It's not the message from the person to a computer that treats a person. It's the hands-on care."

O'Brien sees two other major problems with the plan: a lack of infrastructure and privacy issues.

"I'm concerned that if it became ubiquitous it would be like car alarms going off in the city. There would be so much data going in," he said. "We would have the systems in place to handle all those calls. There will be false alarms."

Personal privacy isn't as big of a concern for the doctor, however he acknowledged that it might be for others.

"If I'm the patient and I have a life-threatening disease, I don't care about my privacy. I care about my life," he said. However, with hacking, "you might be able to monitor all the neighbors' illnesses."

O'Brien called the technology a "phenomenal" idea -- if it works.

"If I have an erratic heart rhythm and I live alone, this would be a lifesaver. … The upside is if you can get a caregiver or emergency medical services to you faster that's good. It will give data to the caregivers. They know you're a diabetic. That's useful information," he said.

"On the other hand, I'm the 21-year veteran of emergency medicine and I totally trust the computer. [If the computer's wrong], that's something that could get me in trouble."