16 October 2007

Healthy Heart's at Home

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A new range of garments will soon be out. Gucci? Prada? - Not this time. The emphasis here is not fashion but prevention of chronic heart disease

A new range of garments will soon be out. Gucci? Prada? - Not this time. The emphasis here is not fashion but prevention of chronic disease. Equipped with sensors, intelligent clothing like a shirt, underpants or belt can now constantly monitor the heartbeat and the blood pressure of those at risk from cardio-vascular diseases (CVDs). The people working on this technology are part of a pan-European team, supported by the European Commission.

Joachim Jerominek barely escaped death at the age of 66 when he suffered a severe heart attack. At the University Clinic of Aachen in Germany a doctor was able to insert a thin plastic tube - a catheter - into an artery in his leg. From there it was advanced into the chambers of the heart to widen them and prevent the clogging. But this life-saving operation had one hitch.

Sometimes heart catheters can produce tiny injuries on the inside the blood vessels and, as Prof. Dr. Patrick Schauerte explains, it can produce clogging more easily in the future. “Where we position the catheter to widen the blood vessel, it can cause minute injuries inside, and this could then be the place where clogging can happen more easily.” For Joachim Jerominek it’s a clear message: he is now even more at risk of a second heart attack, after he has survived the first.

In an ideal world, Jerominek would need to be monitored 24 hours a day to determine whether his heart problems are deteriorating. Prof. Dr. Patrick Schauerte is upset that medicine has been neglecting prevention and aftercare so much. This is why he has teamed up with the “MyHeart” project to find innovative solutions for how people like Jerominek could be monitored after a heart attack in the best and also most affordable way.

The concept of MyHeart is simple: “We want to give responsibility to the patient. The patient learns to live a new healthy lifestyle and the technology is helps him and monitors his body functions. The system advices him what actions to take, like making an appointment with the doctor.”

As Joachim Jerominek would need 24-hour cardio observation, he would need to carry the monitoring instruments with him all the time. Scientists at the Philips Research Labs in Aachen, Germany, are now testing different concepts of intelligent clothing which would pick up the heartbeat and produce an ECG over a long period.

Jörg Habetha, the Project Leader, has recently received a delivery from SMARTEX, a textile company in Italy, who is also taking part in the project. The package includes a new elastic shirt with special sensors that can be connected to a miniature computer, the size of a chocolate bar.

Jörg Habetha has asked Joachim Jerominek to test the new clothing, and the first results are promising. “The computer analyses the heartbeat and ECG data as it includes the latest bluetooth technology”, Habetha explains. This means the portable computer can send data or messages to an external instrument, for example a mobile phone. This way the patient can observe the results of the ECG analysis over the display on the mobile phone and, what’s more, the system will also be able to recognise heart rhythm disturbances, and send a text message to advise the patient to see the doctor.

But the high-tech clothing and the use of the mobile phones are just two examples of a whole range of research approaches that “MyHeart” is examining. Jörg Habetha and his colleague Harald Reiter’s prime objective is to bring the health diagnosis systems from clinic into home. One idea is to produce a special bathroom mirror with an integrated LCD screen as a user interaction device. The mirror receives the data from the portable computers, but this time the patient can check his data in the bathroom on a large screen in a private atmosphere.

The bathroom mirror approach shows that “MyHeart” includes much more than just cardiac analysis. As Harald Reiter demonstrates, you can use “MyHeart” to watch your stress levels, body weight and activity, and sleep patterns. The technology aims to provide the user with health recommendations that may lead to a longer and better life by identifying health risks before they arise. It can also monitor high-risk patients like Joachim Jeremonik in a much more comprehensive way than before. The future of healthcare seems set to shift from clinic to home. Europe spends one hundred billion Euros annually on the prevention and treatment of CVDs. With aging populations in most countries, it is a challenge for Europe to provide its citizens with healthcare at affordable costs.

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