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Smart textiles for health care and reducing accidents

Sustainability and accessibility are increasing in importance.

Advanced Textiles, Markets | May 1, 2023 | By: Marie O’Mahony, Ph.D.

Knitted textile designs by Cassie Henderson address the need for functionality, comfort and strong aesthetic qualities in wearables. Photo: Cassie Henderson

Smart textiles for health and well-being are becoming both more diverse and interconnected. Three key market segments—home health care, health care facilities and work environments—are especially worth noting. Home health care has come to dominate the wearable medical device market globally, with an estimated 54.5% share in 2021, according to a report by Grand View Research. When considered in conjunction with remote patient monitoring, this amounts to around 70% of the market. 

Hospital and health care facilities are broadening their approach to smart textiles, looking not only at patient care but also at how they could be more sustainable and help to address wider environmental issues in the medical arena. The third trend is in work, where the technology is providing diagnostics to help prevent vehicle accidents and to offer more support for workers’ safety in their particular environments.

Home health care

The pandemic provided the impetus for wearables in home health care. It was important to keep patients at home and out of hospitals as much as possible. This has continued with patients being monitored at home rather than in a hospital, with rehabilitation also a growing area for longer-term care under supervision. 

At the Large-area, Organic and Printed Electronics Convention (LOPEC) in March 2023, German multinational chemical and consumer goods company Henkel Corp. showcased its growing portfolio directed at digital health care and smart surfaces, including a sensor demonstrator for health care patches as well as smart diaper applications. Engagement with engineers, designers and developers is essential when launching new products in the health and medical sectors. 

Recognizing this, Henkel is launching the INKxperience Kit. The kit includes four different technologies: a leak detection sensor, a printed noncontact liquid level sensor, a printed single and multi-zone force sensitive resistor (FSR) sensor and a printed positive temperature coefficient (PCT) heater. 

This is designed to allow Internet of Things (IoT) engineers, developers and creatives to explore and experiment with printed electronics. In addition, Henkel demonstrated a variety of solutions for automotive uses, such as printed heaters.

Hospital and health care facilities

An estimated 2.5 million people suffer from pressure injuries, which include bed sores, in the United States annually, according to a 2012 toolkit prepared by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.  Furthermore, a 2018 report by the Nursing Home Law Center LLC estimated that 1.2 million cases developed in hospitals, accounting for 31.6% of hospital-acquired conditions at that time. 

Rehabtronics Inc., a Canadian provider of rehabilitation products, has developed a neurostimulation device designed to help prevent bed sores, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) providing 510(k) clearance for its Prelivia device. This clearance allows the company to market the product in the United States. The founders saw an opportunity to bring its neural rehabilitation discoveries into clinical practice to help patients recovering from stroke, spinal cord and other neurological injuries. 

“Prelivia offers a much-needed alternative to patients at risk for bed sores and their caregivers, who are required to turn patients every two hours to prevent these injuries,” says Rahul Samant, Ph.D., Rehabtronics CEO. The device works by continuously stimulating blood circulation to minimize tissue damage, achieving this without causing muscle fatigue. 

The Prelivia patches are placed on the patient’s at-risk area, where they deliver a painless intermittent electrical stimulation to the affected tissue using proprietary electrodes and a wireless stimulation device. Because there are no time restrictions, Prelivia can be used for long-term bedridden and wheelchair-bound patients. Patients reported that it was comfortable with no disruption to sleep in 98% of more than 600 patient sessions.

Henkel has developed a smart diaper for adult incontinence, transforming it into a connected medical device. Using conductive ink and a connected smart pod, caregivers can be alerted to patient condition via app notification, reducing the need to disturb or wake the patient at regular intervals. Photo: Henkel

Work environments

The Quebec government in Canada has set up the Commission des normes de l’équité de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST, or the Commission for Standards of Equity in Health and Safety at Work) to ensure workers’ rights as well as safety and compensation. According to CNESST data, work-related traffic accidents are the leading cause of accidental death at work. 

A study, conducted using data from more than 8,000 workers who received compensation from the CNESST following such an accident between 2000 and 2008, revealed that more than 83% were the drivers of the vehicles involved. 

Additional studies have concluded that driver fatigue is the most significant factor among the range of risk factors identified. Early-warning systems, including heart rate and breathing monitoring, are the most direct way to reduce risk. 

A team headed by Canadian research centerInstitut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST, or the Robert-Sauvé Research Institute for Occupational Health and Safety) and the Collegial Centre for Technology Transfer (CTT) Group, a Quebec-based nonprofit specializing in advanced technical textiles, is engaged in a research project that uses sensors to detect vital signs without direct skin contact, instead integrating them into a vehicle seat cover. 

An algorithm will be developed to convert the signals detected into biometric data while filtering out noises such as body movements. Post-processing and formatting of this data could train a machine-learning algorithm to determine the stages of drowsiness while driving. 

The study will consolidate knowledge on the development of biometric sensors using smart textile technologies. It will also provide a better understanding of the biometric variables that identify the signs of drowsiness while driving. The research team will also seek to validate the processing of biometric signals as a predictive measure of drowsiness and the deterioration of driving skills.

Designing for comfort

Whatever the application, one of the most crucial factors in wearables design is comfort. Cassie Henderson, a final-year Textiles Masters student at the Royal College of Art in London, England, is focusing on this issue for her final collection of knitted textiles. Yarn selection is crucial to marry performance with comfort, ranging from tactile qualities to the wicking of moisture away from the body. 

The primary goal of the work is identifying knit structures that will address specific challenges in the wearability and comfort of the garment. Henderson is producing textiles that incorporate tubing to accommodate conductive wires or yarn and small pocket sleeves to house hardware. Protective padded areas are strategically placed to soften contact with the skin, particularly for older adults and other wearers with fragile skin. 

The aesthetics run in parallel; for today’s consumer, a wearable has to perform, look and feel good. Design is an important part of engagement, and brands recognize this. In fact, Henderson is already working for clients UpLyft Inc., a maker of seated, self-transfer systems, and Chinese textile manufacturer aiKNIT on textile designs for their rehabilitation wearables.  

Health and well-being continue to be some of the strongest areas for smart textiles and wearables. Although this article looked at three different segments, many of the developments emerging can be used directly or adapted for use in other areas, such as devices for wearable pain relief or insulin management. The core functions of sensing, monitoring
and data collection are now just the starting point for wearables in these sectors, with purpose and design being given increasing attention. 

Marie O’Mahony is an industry consultant specializing in smart and advanced textile technology and market trends. She is based in London, England. 

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