Changing consumer expectations progress naturally on all fronts, but now, when it comes to healthcare, they are rapidly accelerating as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The world we currently live in is unrecognizable compared to our reality just one short year ago, and our utilization of healthcare is quickly transforming. Today, the need for technologies that can be implemented at home are more apparent than ever.
At Stevens Institute of Technology,, researchers like Samantha Kleinberg, associate professor of computer science; Negar Tavassolian, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Damiano Zanotto, assistant professor of mechanical engineering have been innovating creative and groundbreaking ways to advance healthcare technologies with practical applications. In an atmosphere of heightened needs for accessible healthcare solutions, their work is more timely than ever.
From the laboratory to the home
Kleinberg, Tavassolian, and Zanotto are all developing healthcare technologies that can be used at home with the help of smart sensors, among other research endeavors. Kleinberg has developed wearable technologies that automatically detect what people with diabetes are eating along with their stress levels, in order to detect changes in glucose earlier and enable automation of insulin treatment. Tavassolian has developed low-cost wearable cardiovascular monitoring systems, including a fetal heart monitor, for the continuous monitoring of high-risk patients outside of hospital settings. And Zanotto has developed in-shoe sensors to help monitor gait and balance in patients who are undergoing physical therapy for a variety of health problems.
“For diabetes, our goal is helping patients manage their own health without a doctor,” Kleinberg said. “We’ve been looking at forecasting glucose, which is critical if you’re going to have a system that can deliver insulin. You need to predict what glucose is going to do, let’s say, over the next half hour or hour. And then you make decisions about what to do with that information, how to bring it lower or whether you should make it lower.”
Kleinberg has also developed a watch that detects a proxy for stress. “The idea is making it all automated,” she said. “As long as we can measure stress levels, we can bring it into our predictions and estimates and the person doesn’t have to think about it.” She explained that individuals with diabetes are used to constantly thinking and worrying about their condition—but with the use of her smart wearable devices, hopefully their mental energy can be freed up.
Tavassolian hopes that the wearable and non-contact sensors she has developed will expand healthcare’s reach. “People expect ease of use and availability of resources not just in healthcare, but in all areas such as entertainment, dining, and so forth,” she said. “This all has been made possible by progress in technology.”
She continued, “My aim is to enable and simplify home-based and ubiquitous monitoring in a variety of ways, including cancer screening and cardiac monitoring outside hospitals and clinics.”
Telemedicine is here to stay
In 2020, many of us had our first experiences with telemedicine, and Kleinberg is no exception. “I think it’s definitely true that technology is playing a greater role in healthcare, especially with telemedicine,” she said. “Telemedicine seems like such a straightforward thing that it’s surprising that it took this to make it widespread. I’ve had telemedicine appointments, something that could have easily been done this way in the past but just wouldn’t have been because we’re used to doing things in a certain way, and people are slow to accept change or realize that things can be done differently.”
Zanotto’s research in physical rehabilitation highlights the crucial need for telemedicine. “I think telehealth is not going away, and the effect of this pandemic will only be to accelerate our transition to telehealth for many of the services that typically only used to be delivered or administered in clinics.”
Meeting today’s challenges
“Many clinical trials involving gait and balance assessments have come to a halt now that it is no longer safe to bring participants into a laboratory," said Zanotto. To meet this challenge, Zanotto and Ph.D. student Ton Duong are now sending kits of smart in-sole sensors to collaborators at Columbia University Medical Center, Stanford University School of Medicine, University of Texas Medical Branch, and others, to enable remotely-administered gait assessments.
Duong said, “As a researcher and student in the lab, I’m happy to see this technology that I’m working on actually being used in real-life applications. So that’s something exciting to me.”
“It’s good for us to bring our technology out of the lab and see if we can help in this challenging situation,” Zanotto added.
“Because we are dealing with wearable sensors,” he continued, “we don’t need to restrict our assessment to short-duration assessments over telehealth. We can deploy this technology in real life, measure biomechanical and physiological data over extended duration and provide clinicians with summary data.”
Tavassolian hopes that her work will make healthcare more accessible, both in terms of expense and in expanding the pool of people who can use it. “My work makes healthcare available to everyone at any time,” she said. “[In the future], health monitoring will be much cheaper and more accessible to people.”
Kleinberg said that her students are now able to attend conferences that they previously would have been unable to because of the need to travel. Today, these events have become virtual, making them more accessible to participants.
Of her work, she said, “Twenty or thirty years ago it would have been completely impossible to do this kind of research. It’s exciting.”
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