When you think of medical technology, you probably picture a chaotic scene from Grey’s Anatomy, a complicated X-Ray machine, or tons of electrodes stuck all over your body. You likely don’t picture a tiny white box attached to your chest with adhesive tape.
But that’s exactly what Philips has introduced. Healthdot is a small plastic square that’s affixed to patients’ bodies to measure vital signs as they recover from surgery. Crucially, the only setup required is to stick it to the patient’s skin. That’s it. No connecting to a corresponding app or setting up Bluetooth or making sure a mobile device is within range. Healthdot’s incredibly straightforward proposition—combined with the intricate engineering behind the scenes—made it the winner in the Health category of Fast Company‘s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards.
While people might think of Philips as a consumer electronics company—TVs, lightbulbs, toothbrushes, etc.—the Dutch firm has moved primarily into the healthcare space. (It licenses its name to other companies making those products, but no longer actually produces them itself.) Philips has a strong presence in medicine—it makes everything from MRI and X-Ray machines to ventilators and oxygen systems—but hospitals had increasingly been asking for better tools to monitor patients when they left the ICU and were discharged. So about three years ago, Philips launched a small internal team to start working on a device that could help monitor patients remotely.
While Philips Ventures is officially part of Philips, it functions more like a startup, says Michael Heesemans, who leads the 15-person team. Healthdot has been the primary focus, and several months ago, it rolled out the first version in the Netherlands.
The team did user research early on, which shaped the final product, as the designers learned how cumbersome typical monitoring systems were, particularly for older patients. Heesemans says generally after surgery, when patients are moved from the ICU to a general ward, nurses monitor vital signs three times a day; if the patients need to continue being monitored after they’re discharged, they’re often sent home with bulky, complicated hospital systems that require a lot of steps to transmit data. And while smart phones have advanced to the point that they can take people’s vital signs on-demand, Heesemans says he’s unaware of any apps that are able to do so consistently throughout the day at a clinical level.
“We went to people’s homes and said, ‘Okay, you’re using these devices, what’s your experience?” Heesemans says. “They had blood pressure meters or weight scales or sensors which they had to connect to their mobile phone, and then they had to make a Bluetooth connection, charge their phone, keep it close to the sensors, if there were issues, they needed to solve them. After these interviews, we had the impression that our kinds of companies had pushed quite some burden of technology into people’s homes.”
The challenge, then, was to create a product that could measure vital signs without requiring any of that—and to fit it all in a device that could be unobtrusively stuck to someone’s chest. The solution is twofold: In the Netherlands, Healthdot transmits via LoRa, a networked IOT system popular there. When the device rolls out globally, likely sometime next year, it will transmit via 4G or 5G. That means there’s basically a tiny cell phone inside each Healthdot device.
“There are a lot of biosensors that sense these vital signs,” Heesemans says. “But I don’t know of any other sensor out there which is also sending the data without the help of a mobile phone or gateway or something else.” The device itself stays on for two weeks once it’s adhered—it’s waterproof, so patients don’t have to worry about wearing it in the shower.
The Healthdot device measures heart rate and respiratory rate constantly, taking an average every five minutes and transmitting to the hospital system. Heesemans estimated that clinicians might check the data a few times a day to make sure everything looked good, and even beyond that, if there’s a concerning number, the system flags it immediately (which eliminates the need to be constantly monitoring the systems). While it is possible for the system to raise a false alarm or miss something, Heesemans says Healthdot is comparable to, if not better than, the manual readings clinicians would have to do otherwise.
Here, Heesemans says they benefited from Philips’ wealth of data, which showed the correlation between vital signs and complications. “Based on that, we developed early warning-scoring algorithms to indicate to clinicians that these patients might run the risk of complications. It puts up a flag, and they can focus their attention on those patients.” (The team continues to fine-tune the algorithm, working with partner hospitals to collect clinical data from patients using the device.)
During COVID-19, the need for remote monitoring became even more urgent, as resources were stretched to the breaking point. In fact, Philips accelerated its timeline to release Healthdot in the Netherlands because hospitals were clamoring for an easier way to monitor patients both in and out of the hospital.
“The value inside the hospital is that [doctors and nurses] can detect deterioration earlier,” Heesemans says. “And if they can monitor outside the hospital, it gives them more confidence but also allows them to possibly discharge patients earlier, which makes scarce healthcare resources utilized in more efficient ways.”
See more from Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards. Our new book, Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform the Way We Live and Work (Abrams, 2021), is on sale now.