Smart biomedical clothes promising way to keep the European citizen healthy

Brussels 31 July 2002Developments in telecommunication, information technology and computers are the main technical tools for Telemedicine (Telecare, Telehealth, e-health) now being introduced in health care. Telemedicine - medicine at a distance - provides among the many possibilities offered the tools for doctors to more easily consult each other. For individuals, e.g. with chronic diseases, Telemedicine means the possibility to stay in contact with their health care provider for medical advice or even to be alerted if something begins to go wrong with their health. This opens up new possibilities for personalised health and health care. In line with this, ongoing cutting edge research in fields such as textiles, biomedical sensors and mobile communication could pave the way to a better life for a large number of patients. To bring these disciplines together and try to reach a critical mass for Research and Development (R&D), the first workshop on Intelligent Biomedical Clothing (IBC) was organised in Brussels by the European Commission (EC), Information Society Technologies Programme (IST), on 26 April 2002. Another aim of the workshop was to facilitate synergies for possible collaboration in the next European Union R&D Framework Programme (2003-2006).

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Over 30 European research & academic institutes of excellence and leading industries from the areas of microsystems/microelectronics, medical technology, textile, telecommunications, health care and Telemedicine presented their activities, ideas and visions regarding personalised health, health care and intelligent wearable systems and technologies. This stimulated very interesting and high level discussions about the state-of-the-art and future short-mid-long term challenges in the area of Intelligent Biomedical Clothes (IBC). The strong consensus coming out of the workshop is that IBC is a key topic for the future. In addition, the starting markets for functional clothing and smart textiles are within the health care, fitness and prevention domains.

Intelligent biomedical clothing and textiles have the potential to substantially change the provision of health and health care services for large population groups, e.g. those suffering from chronic diseases (such as cardiovascular, diabetes, respiratory and neurological disorders) and the elderly with specific needs. Smart sensor systems and new approaches to analyse and interpret data together with cost-effective telematics approaches can fundamentally change the interface between citizen/patient and the health care provider. Biomedical clothing and functional textiles were believed in the workshop to be a key enabler technology for cost-effective disease management as well as for prevention. Fitness and health are trendy and are becoming a life style. Biomedical fashion (rather than clothes) offers a unique opportunity to seamlessly integrate health care into the daily lives of citizens.

There was a general consensus during the workshop that it is not clear which industry should be the leader, medical technology or the textile sector. Some opinions emerged that rather alternative industries, for instance the sports industry, could take the lead. An interesting point unveiled during the workshop is the conceptual transition from medical clothes for patients to medical clothes for citizens. The first category includes clothes that can be relatively cumbersome and heavy. For the second one, the clothes should be easy to wear, elegant, light, etc. This evolution naturally follows the transition from the "retrofit" approach to the fully "integrated" approach, presented in the workshop.

The first one has to do with the intelligent retrofit of existing tools and sensors on regular clothes. This gives, even today, prototypes that can shortly become products. This is a short to medium term approach. Examples of such systems are: Mamagoose-Pyjama for the detection of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Verhaert, Belgium), presented in the workshop, and LifeShirt-Continuous Ambulatory Monitoring (VivoMetrics, USA). Other research and development activities in wearable - real time personal care systems are ongoing in Europe and worldwide, e.g. AMON (Wrist Telemedical Monitor) and Lifebelt (wearable device for health monitoring during pregnancy) currently funded by the IST programme of the EC.

The second approach is the medium to long term and has to do with the full integration of sensors/actuators, energy sources, processing and communication within the clothes. Examples of research and development activities in this challenging field are:

  • VTAMN-Nomad Medical Tele-assistance Cloth: a prototype smart jacket integrating medical sensors and electronics in the textile for disease monitoring, communication, alarms (MEDES-CNES, France). VTAMN was presented in the workshop.
  • Wearable motherboard Smart Shirt: textile platform for biomedical monitoring, processing, communicating (Sensatex, USA)
  • Future e-Textiles, where sensing, processing and communications are integrated in a woven structure to monitor biomechanical variables and physiological signals. This requires research on new fibre electro-conductive materials. A demonstration of human posture detection and vital signs garments was provided by Centro E. Piaggio, University of Pisa and Smartex (Italy) in the workshop.

While still in an embryonic stage, the smart and functional textile technology has the potential to become ubiquitous. The enabling technology is multidisciplinary. This is even more true for the IBC: for the final integration of all devices e.g. sensors, actuators, wired and wireless communications, displays, energy sources, a strong co-operation between diverse technical fields should be adopted, including engineers and scientists from fields ranging from wireless, to microsystems/microelectronics, energy, textile & fibre materials, medicine and economics.

Crucial to the success of this technology is the user acceptance and the user benefits of the functional clothes. This requires a clear and communicable added value for the user (sound application) as well as a user centred design. For a real success story the economic aspects of the offering have to be addressed from the beginning. This includes the formation of the complete value chain as well as a co-development of the business model(s) with health and/or life insurance (third payer).

Finally, the workshop participants proposed to join a group effort and build further R&D activities e.g. for possible participation in the 6th Framework Programme of the EC through Integrated project(s), bringing all the partners on the same axis to reach the critical mass and to increase the probability of success.

The VMW editorial team kindly pays acknowledgements to Dr. Andreas Lymberis and Dr. Silas Olsson from the European Commission, Information Society Directorate-General for contributing their IBC workshop report to the Virtual Medical Worlds Magazine.


Andreas Lymberis, Silas Olsson

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