2 High-Tech Skin Patches That Could Transform Health Care

| April 12, 2012

We have come a long way since the nicotine patch was invented in 1992. Today, researchers are using skin patches to monitor medication compliance and vital signs.

Health-promoting skin patches have come a long way since Dr. Murray Jarvik invented the nicotine patch in 1992. Now, a new generation of researchers is trying to take skin patch technology to the next level by equipping those patches with sensors and other high-tech monitoring devices.

Cyberpill to Patch: Medication Taken

Communication is the chief job of a new skin patch that will go on sale in the United Kingdom in Sept. 2012. The patch is one component of Helius, a medication-monitoring system that features “ingestible event monitors” or IEMs. 

Patients swallow a sugar pill with an embedded IEM when they take their daily medications. Once the pill reaches the stomach, digestive acids activate the embedded chip, which sends an electrical signal to a patch worn on the skin.

The Helius patch records the date and time of ingestion, along with such vital signs as heart and respiration rates, through a smart phone running an app. If the individual forgets to take a scheduled pill, the patch sends a text message to both patient and physician. 

In addition, the smart phone app allows patients and physicians to analyze the data generated by the IEM.

The Helius system was developed by the California-based Proteus BioMedical and costs about $80 per month. A similar chip-based system developed by Proteus for a Swiss pharmaceutical firm boosted medication compliance rates from 30% to 80% over 6 months for blood pressure medication, according to Co.Exist.

Tattoo-Like Medical Monitors

Another high-tech medical patch now being developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will measure about an inch square and will look like the temporary tattoos that are so popular among the young. 

Far from being a fashion statement, however, the tattoo-like device will have a serious mission, according to HealthDay.

If researchers reach their goals, the patch could be used to continuously measure heart activity and brain waves without the use of wires, thus freeing patients from being tethered by bulky connections to hospital-based machinery. Because the patches follow the contours of the skin, they’re also likely to be less rigid and less irritating than ordinary medical patches.

Designing such a carefree device isn’t that easy, of course. Researchers face a variety of hurdles, beginning with the basic challenge of designing a patch that actually sticks to the skin and that is water resistant.