AT&T Pushes 'Connected' Clothing For Healthcare
Telecom giant sees growing market in eldercare, fitness, and childcare for wireless sensors embedded in clothing to monitor vital signs.
In an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare, Lurie said he believes "the stars have aligned" for these kinds of products. As compared to 10 years ago, when "connected clothing" first became available, he noted, the prices of clothing sensors have come down; Wi-Fi and wireless networks have become ubiquitous; and mobile apps have become vastly easier to design and simpler to use.
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What initially attracted AT&T to Zephyr, he said, was the use of its BioHarness in college athletes' Under Armour shirts at last year's NFL Scouting Combine. The BioHarness measured the athletes' vital signs, heart rate, and temperature, he noted.
AT&T's plans with Zephyr go beyond athletes, Lurie said. The clothing sensors could also be used by marathon runners, so their loved ones know how they're doing, or by people who simply want to track their vital signs when they work out.
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The sensors could also be useful in first-responder applications, including apps for police and fire departments and the military, he pointed out.
Other applications could tap even bigger markets, such as the care of infants and the elderly. For example, parents of babies could cover them in connected clothing to check on their children when they were out of the house, Lurie said. And relatives of elderly people who are "aging in place" in their homes could check on their vital signs and make sure their loved ones haven't fallen. This could help the elderly stay out of assisted living facilities, as most prefer to do.
In addition, Lurie said, the clothing sensors could help elderly people live more active lives because of the ability to transmit their vitals wherever they go. "Seniors want more freedom, but at the same time, their loved ones want to know where they are and how they're feeling. So we see some opportunities there," he said.
"When you look at the percentage of Americans who are aging and the number who fall into that category every day, it's going to be a very big marketplace to deliver products and services to make their lives better."
Transmitting clothing sensor data to providers would open up another market. Zephyr already offers a physician dashboard to view patients' vital signs. The BioHarness can also generate a remote electrocardiogram, according to the company. Although the application is not yet commercially available, it was demonstrated at a meeting of the American Telemedicine Association last spring.
Similar devices have required FDA approval--and in fact, the BioHarness itself was approved by the federal agency in December 2010. But Lurie does not believe that other applications for clothing sensors will need a green light from the FDA.
AT&T has been expanding its product line of "connected devices" for healthcare. Besides the clothing sensors, Lurie said, AT&T serves as the wireless network for a few other products in this area. He cited the GlowCap pill bottle lid. The GlowCap uses lights and wireless alerts to remind consumers to take their medications and has been shown to increase adherence, he said.
Lurie said he hopes the government will reduce regulatory obstacles to the development of this market. "We need the government to move faster," he declared. "We need to look at this space as one of the great opportunities to help reduce healthcare costs, and I think people fully understand that."
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