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Smart Fabrics and Cloud Analytics Improve the Future of Healthcare

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IDC forecasts that by 2019, total shipments of wearable devices worldwide will reach 214.6 million units, resulting in a five-year compound annual growth rate of 28%. The market is thriving. Looking forward, I asked myself, how will the technology itself grow and how will it impact evolving industries like healthcare?

The healthcare industry, a space that has historically been adverse to change, has recently been moving at the speed of light – with technology to thank. Some of the most impactful of those technologies are wearable devices. Devices such as Fitbit and Apple Watch can do things that just five years ago were unimaginable. Take for example the Apple Watch, which with the help of its corresponding applications, can track your physical activity, weight loss, medication and hydration level. You can even have a virtual consultation with your doctor right from your wrist.

Wearable devices are a piece of the cost-savings pie that helps the healthcare industry (both health insurance companies and hospitals alike) change the behavior within consumers to make them more aware of their health, which in turn, will keep them healthy and out of the hospital. These are a few reasons why the healthcare industry has a vested interested in, and is investing heavily into wearable devices.

So how can this technology, that is advanced in itself, become even more revolutionary? The leader of the pack is smart fabric – the hot new trend in wearable technology.

What are smart fabrics?

The foundation of smart textiles lays within its cutting edge technology, which essentially is embedding a variety of tiny semiconductors and sensors into fabrics that can see, hear, and communicate. These devices take this information to deliver greater comfort, for example by warming or cooling the wearer, or capture useful biometrics for monitoring the wearer’s health. Smart textiles are paving the way to a new frontier of the Internet of Things, a technology that IBM is at the forefront in. It’s easy for me to understand how a Fitbit can communicate, but it’s a little less clear how my t-shirt can. So I dug a bit deeper into the innovation of this technology, and how it can transform the healthcare industry, and drew these three conclusions:

  • The possibilities are endless
    There are countless ways smart fabrics can impact healthcare, from wound care to keeping athletes healthier by analyzing data collected from their sweat. I found the most fascinating innovation in the works to be smart hospital gowns. Imagine if hospital gowns could monitor heart rate, pulse rate and blood pressure instead of a patient having to endure painful IVs for extended periods of time? What if these gowns could be customized for a person’s specific needs such as cardiac patients or pregnant women? Or what if these gowns could release medicine into the skin of a patient?
  • Smart fabrics are more than what you wear
    An example of a smart fabric that doesn’t exist on your body, but rather within, are shape memory polymers (SMPs). SMPs appear in implants such as cardiovascular stents that allow for minimally invasive implantation through small incisions, where the stent is small before it expands and reshapes itself. SMPs have an additional feature, biodegradability, which results in the implant degrading before elimination by the body after it has fulfilled its purpose. Paired with 3D printing, there are an infinite number of opportunities to incorporate smart fabrics into both implantable and non-implantable products.
  • Be healthy today and even healthier tomorrow
    MIT Professor Yoel Fink feels smart fabrics can revolutionize the healthcare industry by gathering “clinically meaningful information, where you can then infer not only where you are today, but also where your body is heading and where your health is heading.” You can listen to Professor Fink’s interview State’s New Innovation Institute Wants To Shake Up Textiles Industry for more details.

It’s become quite clear wearable devices are moving from a noticeable piece you wear on your wrist, to a fabric you wear on your back or have inside your body. All of this is bound together by data – data that needs to be interpreted and analyzed. IBM Bluemix offers services that excel at processing large amounts of data at high speeds, such as IBM Analytics for Apache Spark and IBM Cloudant for massive scalability, so as a hospital gown gathers information from patients, applications on Bluemix can interpret and analyze the data to help doctors make smarter decisions.

Learn more about the Internet of Things and wearable devices or get started for free on Bluemix and try it out for yourself.

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