Ping the Doctor

Jan 26, 2022

While healthcare is deeply personal, and direct contact between patient and medical personnel remains vital, there are a few good reasons to sometimes take this personal relationship out of the equation. Medical crises such as the global COVID-19 pandemic accelerate the adoption of telehealth methods, even though the original idea behind that approach was improving healthcare in remote locations.

Although mobile blood pressure, heart rate monitors, and blood oxygen sensors have been in use for a long time, the advent of multi-sensor wristbands and sports watches has taken these to a new level. The amount of data collected by devices such as an Apple Watch is breathtaking. However, not many doctors trust the 1-channel ECG taken by such a gadget, though its alerts can at least advise the wearer to ask for a thorough medical examination.

These devices, however, are also collecting data, and that data is being stored in locations outside of hospitals. As we shall see, this raises several issues of privacy.

Standards and Bureaucracy

The amount of medical data grows each year. Before COVID-19 hit, researchers from Stanford University estimated an annual increase of 48 percent. This figure includes private patient information regarding health status and insurance providers that circulate in a hospital or doctor's office. Such sensitive information requires high levels of security.

That is why most countries have put rules to protect electronic personal health information that health-care providers, health plans, and health-care clearing houses create, receive, use, or maintain.

Common safeguard categories are:

  • Administrative: Assigning security responsibility to an individual and implementing security training.
  • Physical: Protect electronic systems and data they hold by restricting access to EPHI and using off-site backups.
  • Technical: Automated processes such as authentication controls and encrypting data during transfer.

Cloud and Edge architectures with adequate security measures can be useful because the exchange of medical data between clinical facilities, patients, researchers, and medical practitioners requires shifting enormous amounts of data. Providers and even users must comply with several data regulation laws like HIPAA, HITECH, and GDPR. Healthcare providers must ensure compliance of the cloud-hosted data - not an easy task!

From a design and development perspective, companies developing applications for first responders, seniors, and fitness face the same challenges and requirements. One of the major product groups for collecting health or fitness data are smartwatches or fitness wristbands. The data being collected is very much medical data, and solutions will have to be found to fully protect that data. For example, the Apple Watch is equipped with a built-in heart rate sensor using both infrared and visible-light LEDs and photodiodes. Furthermore, it uses a position and acceleration sensor for detecting movement. Other manufacturers employ similar technology that provide users with medical feedback.

Ready-made solutions

Of course, most users are more interested in the medical use of these gadgets. And that’s what designers have to focus on to get more users. One example of medical sensor fusion is the MAX86150 Integrated Photoplethysmogram (PPG) and Electrocardiogram (ECG) Bio-Sensor Module by Maxim Integrated. For development purposes, the manufacturer provides the MAX86150 Evaluation Kit (Figure 1). When monitoring is active, the module uses IR Proximity Mode to detect the user's fingers, and a red LED will turn on when a finger is near the module.

Figure 1: The MAX86150 Evaluation Kit provides a proven platform to evaluate the MAX86150 Integrated Photoplethysmogram (PPG) and Electrocardiogram (ECG) Bio-Sensor Module. (Source: Mouser Electronics)

The SmartWatch Solution by Toshiba provides a reference design based on Toshiba discrete components, selected to get more performance in a smaller package. Toshiba offers an extensive portfolio of components like tiny MOSFETs, diodes, and transistors in addition to feature-rich ICs such as LDO regulators, load switches, and the smart eFuse IC, all designed to increase available board space, reduce passive current consumption, and to ensure a long battery life.

Figure 2: Block diagram of Toshiba’s Smart Watch solution

Smartwatches do not have to be full-featured; the key to wearable health monitors is sensor fusion. It doesn’t have to be a full-featured smartwatch. Whatever the final design should look like, sensor fusion is the key to wearable health monitors. A good starting point for developing is a MikroE sensor Click board, like the ECG 6 Click used for the development of ECG and heart-rate applications. The click features the Maxim Integrated MAX86150 Reflective Heart-rate Monitor and Medical-grade Pulse Oximeter. The board contains an integrated electrocardiogram, pulse oximeter, and heart-rate monitor sensor module.


In light of the recent healthcare crises, home health care and remote patient monitoring have proven logistically vital and beneficial to both patients and doctors; plus, they offer several other fringe benefits, to say nothing of the convenience of not driving to the doctor’s office and not having to sit in a crowded waiting room full of sick people. As a result, the speed of home health care adoption has risen. Still, the development of healthcare communication infrastructure, including patient and doctor confidentiality, has to keep up along with the development of newer, more innovative sensor-fused home healthcare monitoring devices.

Development platforms like the Maxim Integrated MAX86150 Evaluation Kit or the Mikroe ECG 6 Click allow design engineers to streamline their virtual healthcare offerings. These kits enable engineers to focus on more novel, innovative designs and bring them to market faster, more straightforward, and more cost-competitive.