Medical Sensors

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Medical Sensors

by James G. Barr

Docid: 00021082

Publication Date: 2011

Report Type: TUTORIAL


Medical sensors are tools that detect specific biological,
chemical, or physical processes and then transmit the data for analysis. The
data collected can be used by a clinician to detect and diagnose a medical condition, or
by a health management specialist to gain insight into how the human body
functions. New sensors are being
developed to help arrest the aging process; enable remote monitoring of aging or
at-risk individuals; and – in their current commercial application – to improve physical
fitness and performance.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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According to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB),
medical sensors are tools that detect specific biological, chemical,
or physical processes and then transmit the data for subsequent analysis, either
by a clinician to detect and diagnose a medical condition, or by a health
management specialist to gain insight into how the human body functions; in
particular, the progression of diseases and other degenerative processes.1

Healthcare IT System Market
Leaders Market
HIPAA Records Management Tutorial

Sensor Characteristics

Medical sensors come in many forms. Some sensors operate outside the body (that
is, are worn or attached) while others are implanted or
even ingested.

Some health monitoring devices consist of multiple
that measure a number of physical or biological parameters. Other devices
may be multifunctional, incorporating, for instance, sensors that initiate drug delivery
or perform other interventions based on the data they receive. A heart pacemaker is a common example.

Sensors are often used to
monitor the safety of medicines, food, environmental conditions, and
substances people may encounter.

Some simple sensors are
designed for personal or patient use. The most prominent examples

  • Thermometers, which translate the expansion of a fluid in
    response to heat into a number corresponding to body
  • Home pregnancy tests, which contain a substance that changes color in the presence of
    hormones indicating pregnancy.

More complex sensors include:

  • Pulse oximeters (also known as
    blood-oxygen monitors), which measure changes in the body’s absorption
    of special types of light to provide information on a patient’s heart
    rate and the amount of oxygen in the blood. See Figure 1.
  • Fitness trackers, which monitor activity, exercise, food
    consumption, weight, and sleep. Fitbit, for example, employs a
    technology called photoplethysmography, which involves using light to
    measure blood flow.

As with new brands of pharmaceuticals, new sensors are being
developed to:

  • Help arrest the aging process.
  • Enable remote monitoring of aging
    or at-risk individuals.
  • Offer feedback to help people
    improve their physical fitness and performance (particularly for

Figure 1. Masimo LNCS DCl Adult Reusable Sensor
– 1863: Measures the SpO2, pulse oximetry, of an adult

Figure 1. Masimo LNCS DC1 Adult Reusable Sensor - 1863: Measures the Sp02, pulse oximetry, of an adult

Source: Master Medical Equipment

Sensor Development

Advances in sensor technology, engineering, and materials science are
allowing the manufacture of increasingly sophisticated sensors. For
example, NIBIB-funded researchers developed:

  • A compact, wireless, implantable brain sensor which may
    enable thought-controlled prosthetics
    and other assistive devices for people with amputated limbs, paralysis, or
    other movement impairments.
  • A sensor with a thin plastic membrane which is filled with a compound that creates a
    voltage difference across the membrane in the presence of OSCS, a
    potentially deadly contaminant sometimes found in preparations of the
    commonly used blood thinner heparin. Contaminated samples can be
    detected before the drug is administered to patients.3

Some medical sensors resemble electronic tattoos,
as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Temporary Electronic Tattoo for Monitoring Alcohol

Figure 2. Temporary Electronic Tattoo for Monitoring Alcohol Levels

Source: Jacobs School of
Engineering, UC San Diego

Sensor Market

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Medical Sensors Market

According to Markets & Markets, the medical sensors market will
reach $1.7 billion by 2025.4

Types of Medical Sensors

Prominent categories of medical sensors include:

  • Temperature sensors
  • Blood glucose sensors
  • Blood oxygen sensors
  • ECG sensors
  • Image sensors
  • Motion sensors
  • Inertial sensors
  • Pressure sensors

Among the primary applications of medical sensors are:

  • Diagnostics
  • Monitoring
  • Medical therapeutics
  • Imaging
  • Wellness and fitness

Sensor Makers

According to Transparency Market Research, the key participants in the
global medical sensors market include:

  • Cardiomo
  • Honeywell International, Inc.
  • TE
  • Dexcom, Inc.
  • Medtronic
  • Danaher Corporation
  • First Sensor AG
  • Sensirion AG
  • Smiths Groups plc
  • GluSense Ltd5

Sensors & Healthcare IT

Medical sensors and the information systems that collect and
process sensor data are an integral part of healthcare IT – a field which
encompasses electronic medical records, HIPAA compliance, and telemedicine among
other specialties. The principal areas of intersection between sensor
technology and healhcare IT are:

  • Healthcare analytics, aimed at
    improving medical outcomes, particularly patient safety and
    coordination of care.
  • Mobile health applications, healthcare apps on mobile
    devices and wearables that transmit the user’s "vitals".

Minimally Invasive Sensors

The market for tiny (minimally invasive) medical
sensors is growing. Common applications, as observed by Benatav Advanced Winding
Technologies, include:

  • Diagnostics – devices for monitoring a
    patient’s vital signs.
  • Implants – including miniature pacemakers and devices
    for providing deep brain stimulation.
  • Navigation – devices for directing drug
    delivery and radiation treatment.6

Medical WBANs

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Medical sensors may be arrayed across the human body, forming a personal
medical data network.

For example, the term wireless body area network (WBAN) "[refers] to wireless technology
used in conjunction with wearables," such as watches, glasses, or sensors.

As reported by analyst Bradley Mitchell, a medical WBAN, as shown in
Figure 3, consists of "electronic sensors that monitor patients for a
variety of health-related conditions. For example, body sensors
attached to a patient can measure whether they have suddenly fallen to the
ground and report these events to monitoring stations. The network can
also track heart rate, blood pressure, and other patient vital signs. Tracking the physical location of doctors within a hospital also proves
useful in responding to emergencies."7

Medical WBANs are customizable and may incorporate one to many sensors,
depending on the condition and medical history of the individual being monitored, and his or her
potential for requiring healthcare intervention.

Figure 3. Example of Medical Wireless Body Network

Figure 3. Example of Medical Wireless Body Network

Source: Wikimedia Commons

"In May 2012, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission
[FCC] assigned the regulated wireless spectrum 2360-2400 MHz for medical body area
networking. Having these dedicated frequencies avoids contention with
other kinds of wireless signals, improving the medical network’s reliability."8

Sensor Concerns

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While a valuable tool for medical detection and diagnosis, medical sensors
can be controversial. Consider the following concerns.

Security – Any Internet-connected device is susceptible to hacking. Tampering with a medical sensor might threaten a person’s
well-being, even life.

Privacy – In the US and EU, in particular, health-related data is
considered highly sensitive (on a par with financial information). Laws
like the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) require
organizations that collect and process health data to keep patient data secure. This obligation extends to sensor data. Another privacy concern involves
surveillance, as sensor data might be used to determine a person’s location, or
track his or her movements. Improperly-obtained sensor data might also
impact a person’s employment prospects by revealing the existence of an
unreported, but medically-irrelevant, health condition.

Quality – Medical sensors, like those incorporated in
pacemakers, must be defect-free. 99.99 percent reliability is not

Malfunctions – Malfunctioning sensors might fail to alert medical
personnel to a medical emergency. Similarly, malfunctioning sensors might
indicate the need for medical treatment where none is required, possibly
inducing an unnecessary – and potentially harmful – medical procedure.

Availability – While medical sensors are useful tools for
monitoring, diagnosing, treating, and managing health conditions, they can be
expensive. Income inequality, which already manifests as healthcare inequality
due to high insurance costs, might mean that poor or working-class people will
be denied the benefits of sensor technology.

COVID-19 – The novel coronavirus has accelerated the trend toward
telemedicine and other remote health monitoring. As analyst Susan Rambo
explains, "The no-touch thermometer and our personal pulse oximeter are not just
coveted gadgets now. They have true clinical use in what may become a
‘point-of-use’ system. Point of use means we don’t have to go to the clinic to
get screened." The worry, however, is that many medical sensors might not be
accurate enough to serve this new role, especially efforts to design and
construct handheld COVID-19 testers. These small, low-power sensors must be
capable of measuring a person’s:

  • Temperature
  • Oxygen saturation (SpO2)
  • Respiration rate.
  • Heart rate and rhythm9

Future Applications

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As the technology improves, the use of medical sensors will become routine:

  1. Providing early warning of diseases, injuries,
    or other physical or mental maladies.
  2. Permitting people to discriminate between
    normal "aches and pains" and serious conditions.
  3. Eliminating unnecessary doctor visits.
  4. Encouraging necessary doctor visits.
  5. Giving physicians actionable intelligence on
    the state of their patients’ health, facilitating the process of
    differential diagnosis.
  6. Allowing the medical community to invest in
    equipment and personnel according to disease patterns and prognostications.
  7. Granting the medical research community the
    opportunity to
    allocate funds according to disease prevalence.
  8. Enabling epidemiologists to detect and trace
    disease outbreaks and progressions.
  9. Lowering individual and per capita healthcare
  10. Improving business productivity by enhancing
    workers’ health.
  11. Extending the average individual’s lifespan and improving quality of life.
  12. Reducing government spend on healthcare as the public policy emphasis shifts from disease treatment to prevention.

Baby Boomers will likely lead the revolution as the need for health stabilization
and restoration is felt most acutely by seniors.

Having been raised in a technologically-rich environment where smartphones
are practically glued to their hand, Millennials and subsequent generations will likely embrace sensor use, some for disease detection and others for the
opportunity to improve their physical condition and performance.

Below is a preview of coming attractions in the field of medical sensors.

Health Change Detection Model

In a 2017 paper, analysts Sudhanshu Janwadkar and Dr. M. T. Kolte proposed
the development of a Health Change Detection Model, which they describe as "an
unobtrusive, continuous monitoring [system] in the home for the purpose of
assessing early health changes [in senior citizens]. Older adults will benefit from early detection and recognition of small
changes in health conditions and get help early when treatment is most

According to their simple formula:

  • "Sensors embedded in the environment capture behavior and activity patterns.
  • "Changes in patterns are detected as potential signs of changing health.
  • "Based on the features extracted from in-home sensor data, health alerts are
    generated to clinicians.
  • "Clinicians analyze each alert and provide a rating on the clinical relevance."10

AI-Enabled Medical Sensors

Increasingly, medical sensors will be paired with artificial intelligence
technology to provide both analytic and predictive capabilities,11
particularly for senior patients. According to biometric sensor technology firm
Valencell, "Much of the monitoring technology on
the market fails to provide for the aging population. It can be good at
monitoring things – like an opening door or someone entering a room – but unable
to detect exactly who is doing what or identify small changes in a senior’s
daily patterns which could indicate a significant change in health or functional

One current solution is CarePredict’s Tempo. According to the manufacturer,
"Tempo is a wrist-worn wearable that houses a
sophisticated array of sensors able to detect an individual’s activities of
daily living (ADLs) and location, while providing a touch-button call system for
real-time communication with caregivers." The data collected by Tempo "is
classified and neural nets establish a
rolling baseline for the individual senior. Then, personalized, actionable
insights are delivered on health conditions."13

High Prevalence Disease Detection

Analysts Bradford D. Pendley and Erno Lindner advise developers to
concentrate on sensors that detect "high prevalence" diseases. "Both diagnostic and management decisions can be greatly enhanced with information from sensors, but developers should understand the clinical criteria by which such sensors will be judged and used and their associated pitfalls.
The development of medical sensor technologies to aid health care workers in
making decisions should focus on the clinical requirements and the information
content the sensors will provide.
It is essential to understand that even the best sensors, with outstanding analytical characteristics, will most likely not have clinical utility for the diagnosis of very low prevalence diseases. On the other hand, the same sensors in another environment or other times with high prevalence of the disease could be extremely useful."13


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"Sensors". National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and
Bioengineering | National Institutes of Health | US Department of Health
& Human Services. October 2016.




4 Nancy Crotti. "Sensor Innovation Is Just
Getting Started in Healthcare." WTWH
Media, LLC. April 22, 2020.

5 "Medical Sensors Market: Implantable Sensors to be Highly Lucrative Segment."
Transparency Market Research. July 24, 2020.

"What Are Medical Sensors?" Benatav Advanced Winding Technologies.

7 Bradley Mitchell. "Introduction to Body Area Networks."
February 9, 2018.

8 Ibid.

9 Susan Rambo. "Challenges In Making Better Medical Sensors." SMG. June 9,

10 Sudhanshu Janwadkar and Dr. M. T. Kolte. "Sensor Based Monitoring
System for
In-Home Embedded Health Assessment for Senior Citizens." LinkedIn Corporation.
July 16, 2017.

11 Philipp Gratzel von Gratz. "Sensors To-Go Are Coming of Age."
Healthcare IT News. April 2, 2020.

12 "Artificial Intelligence Powered Wearable Solutions for Senior
Care: A Conversation with CarePredict." Valencell, Inc. 2020.


13 Bradford D. Pendley and Erno Lindner.
"Medical Sensors for the Diagnosis and Management of Disease: The Physician Perspective."
American Chemical Society | ACS Sens. 2017, 2, 1549-1552. November 3,

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About the Author

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James G. Barr is a leading business continuity analyst
and business writer with more than 30 years’ IT experience. A member of
"Who’s Who in Finance and Industry," Mr. Barr has designed,
developed, and deployed business continuity plans for a number of Fortune 500
firms. He is the author of several books, including How to Succeed in
Business BY Really Trying
, a member of Faulkner’s Advisory Panel, and a
senior editor for Faulkner’s Security Management Practices. Mr.
Barr can be reached via e-mail at

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