From cycling to sex - "smart" patches monitor our vital signs

What do riding a bike, taking a shower and making love have in common?

According to Professor Klas Hjort, head of the microsystems technology programme at Uppsala University in Sweden, all three activities prove the usefulness of a new generation of skin patches that can monitor people's vital signs such as blood pressure and heart rate.

Although 'smart devices' are already on the market and in people's lives, researchers are looking to improve technology in areas such as eHealth and make devices more comfortable to wear during everyday life

Hjort leads a research project called SINTEC, which has received EU funding to develop soft, waterproof sensor patches that are designed to take the technology to the next level.

The project runs for four and a half years until June 2023. It involves universities, companies and research organisations from Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.

"We realised the need for more comfortable 'smart patches' that anyone can use no matter what they are doing indoors or outdoors - walking in the rain, hiking, swimming, showering, cycling or even having sex," said Hjort.

The main challenge with "smart" wearables is developing sensors that are comfortable enough to use throughout the day and don't interfere with routine activities.

SINTEC's device includes a soft, reusable sensor that looks like a small USB key and is held in place using a disposable patch. In addition to being soft and waterproof, the patch is stretchable.

The sensor monitors blood pressure and heart rhythm, allowing for the monitoring of conditions such as organ damage, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

The device could also provide a new, unobtrusive way to manage hypertension, a "silent" medical condition that is characterized by high blood pressure and can lead to stroke, kidney disease and heart failure.

SINTEC's patch is more convenient for athletes than existing technologies because it is lighter and thinner - seven grams and three millimeters for the sensor patch compared to, for example, 53 grams and 13 millimeters on a typical smartwatch.

Health and fitness benefits

Smart wearables can, for example, enable remote medical care for patients, alert the elderly to gradual deterioration in health and help people recover more quickly from injury or illness.

Such devices can measure physiological parameters, such as respiratory rate and blood oxygen saturation, which until now could only be checked in laboratories.

"These smart patches can help athletes who train intensively to optimise their workouts and reduce the risk of injury," explained Hjort.

It was in this context that he mentioned their potential use during sexual intercourse.

"These things are reliable and can be used by anyone, anywhere, anytime," Hjort said. "The utility of such unobtrusive smart patches is not specific to the sexual act, but will not be hindered by it, nor will it interfere with it," he added.

In Europe, the leading manufacturers of "smart patches" include two Swedish companies, Beneli and Nile, as well as Quad Industries in Belgium. | BGNES