In today’s digital age, focus on digital health and the quantified self have led to the rapid rise of heart rate monitoring technologies through wearables such as fitness trackers and smartwatches. Such devices have already proven their ability in detecting hidden heart conditions such as tachycardia and atrial fibrillation in seemingly healthy people. However, the majority of wrist-based devices currently serve only as an advance warning, they are not approved by the FDA for use as medical devices. Thus, cardiologists still need to use alternative technologies for their diagnostic and monitoring needs. 

This is where flexible electronics comes in. Cardiac monitoring requires devices to make close contact with the skin, making devices that integrate flexible and even stretchable electronics ideal due to their ability to conform to the skin, the potential for a low profile, and overall patient comfort. IDTechEx forecasts that flexible electronics in cardiac monitoring, deployed in electronic skin patches and electronic textiles, will be a $2 billion market in the year 2030. 

IDTechEx have been reporting on flexible electronics for the past decade and have recently published «Flexible Electronics in Healthcare 2020-2030«. In this article, IDTechEx describe how electronic skin patches and electronic textiles are used in cardiac monitoring. To find out more about other technologies for monitoring cardiovascular health, please refer to the IDTechEx report, «Cardiovascular Disease 2020-2030: Trends, Technologies & Outlook«. 

Electronic Skin Patches

Electronic skin patches are wearable devices that contain electrical components which are attached to the skin, typically using an adhesive. 

In cardiac monitoring, electronic skin patches present an interesting balance between the medical standard, which is a 12-lead ECG test, and consumer electronics such as smartwatches and fitness trackers. While electronic skin patches offer less data than can be obtained through a 12-lead ECG, they present more useful and accurate information than the optical technology used in smartwatches and fitness trackers, and offer continuous monitoring, unlike the 1-lead ECG in the newer smartwatch models. 

Within medical applications, electronic skin patches bring increased mobility to the patient over the 12-lead test. The first step from the 12-lead ECG is the Holter monitor, a portable, wired, device designed to be used over 24 – 48 hours. However, this device remains unwieldy and intrusive. 

To increase patient comfort, companies have developed cardiac monitoring patches in the form of 1 integrated device over a flexible substrate. By removing the wires and decreasing device footprint and weight, electronic skin patches are more comfortable to wear, and can be used for longer monitoring periods, up to 30 days. This longevity is critical in detecting events for patients who do not experience them daily. The next step for devices will be to incorporate printed electronics to manufacture integrated electrodes and devices with even close-fitting designs for greater patient comfort. 

Cardiac monitoring devices range from (left to right) the 12-lead ECG, Holter monitor, patch with snap fasteners, and patch with integrated electronics. // Source: IDTechEx research report, «Flexible Electronics in Healthcare 2020-2030«.

Overall, electronic skin patches for cardiac monitoring fill the gap between in-patient cardiac monitoring (accurate, safe, non-ambulatory, expensive), implantable cardiac monitors (accurate, less safe, ambulatory, expensive) and other wearable fitness devices (poor accuracy/no medical approval, safe, ambulatory, cheap). But the deployment of cardiac monitoring skin patches is not just limited to event monitoring or mobile cardiac telemetry. Outside of cardiac monitoring, electronic skin patches for monitoring of other diseases (e.g. respiratory), or general patient monitoring (in-patient, post-discharge, etc.) also contain cardiac monitoring capabilities. 

To find out more about electronic skin patches, please refer to IDTechEx’s report, «Electronic Skin Patches 2020-2030«.