Chris Van Hoof, imec fellow & Director Connected Health Solutions
In mid 2016, Bill Hait – global head of R&D at Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research and Development – said that the company’s long-term goal was to make significant progress towards a world without disease by 2030. His words heralded a trend that became visible in 2017: smart healthcare is shifting its focus from diagnostics and therapy to disease prevention and disease interception. While disease prevention mainly focuses on stimulating (healthy) behavior, disease interception implies capturing a disease before the first symptoms occur and developing therapies applicable in such an early stage of the disease process. Both prevention and disease interception require personal digital phenotyping – the use of digital and wearable technology to track health parameters and behavior over an extended period of time so as to identify risk factors and triggers. To turn this vision into reality, technology innovation is key.
Advancing the state-of-the-art: mobile and low-cost diagnostic solutions
At imec, wearable health R&D has traditionally focused on developing highly-comfortable, medical-grade wireless solutions for the diagnosis and management of cardiovascular, neurological and cardiopulmonary disorders. Our most recent wireless chest patch in 2017 combines ECG, respiration rate, respiration depth and actimetry. Due to its compact size and design, it significantly increases patients’ comfort and can be worn day or night to screen or diagnose. We are currently running clinical investigational studies to explore its potential use for patients with congestive heart failure and chronic kidney disorder.
In 2017, we also completed a next generation of our MUSEIC chip, a low-power multi-(bio)sensor system-on-chip. It combines a wide range of on-chip electrophysiological sensor readouts with sensor fusion, powerful (yet ultra-low-power) signal processing, memory, power management, connectivity, and is at the same time equipped with built-in security and encryption. This platform can be used for very diverse diagnostic applications, but can also feature in smart watches and fitness trackers for wellness assessment. With such a complex system-on-chip, we can reduce the complexity at the system and application level. The new-generation MUSEIC chip could, for instance, be used to create a disposable single-use diagnostic smart Band-Aid that people could just buy at the pharmacy for prescribed diagnostic applications. This could significantly enhance chronic patients’ comfort and convenience. The expected cost reduction can also help to bring much needed chronic disease tools to developing countries.
Prevention through digital phenotyping: digital coaching for a healthy life
Providing accurate diagnosis and efficient treatment tools addresses an important need, but it would be even better if we could prevent people from becoming sick in the first place. That is why, in 2017, and after several years of preparation, we have set up the imec.ichange program, our first step towards a ‘world without disease’. According to the WHO, unhealthy behavior and lifestyle are at the root of nearly 80% of chronic diseases, which in turn are responsible for 60% of all deaths. Consequently, 70-85% of the healthcare budgets of OECD countries are spent treating chronic patients. This implies that true prevention has a tremendous potential to save lives and curb healthcare costs.
Digital phenotyping is one of the tools that we can use to prevent chronic disease. There are already a myriad of fitness trackers and sports watches that aim to motivate us to make healthier choices and try to make us fit, but their success rate is unclear: between thirty to fifty percent of users discard them after 6 months. One of the main reasons is that good intentions are short-lived if you only focus on maintaining motivation through simple metrics (steps, floors, heart rate) and generic advice.