By Jaci Dole
This post is one of a series in the #Innovate4Health policy research initiative.
For centuries, people have been fascinated with and assisted by wearable technology. Consider such devices as abacus rings, the Sony Walkman, hearing aids, and even eyeglasses. Many of these devices were used for entertainment purposes or to improve quality of life or work productivity, but in the early 2000s wearable healthcare technology began to steal the show. From the FitBit and Apple Watch to the Embrace2, monitoring various aspects of one’s health has become as fast-paced, individualized, and continuous as society itself.
PulzSolutions, a Sri Lanka-based R&D organization, has contributed to this trend with its inventive wearable electronics that remotely monitor non-communicable diseases, including heart problems, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma. PulzSolutions’ most-innovative and -renowned solution so far is the award-winning Panacea’s Medi-Belt (PMB), which can monitor cardiovascular health in a region where cardiac care is often scarce.
The potential benefits of wearable healthcare technology are vast. Doctors and consumers alike have experienced the benefits of continuous, personal monitoring of health data via wearable technology, as a recent study indicated the use of wearable healthcare technology more than tripled over a period of just four years. Numerous innovations track the wearer’s activity level and habits, generating digital data that can be used to improve fitness training or be transferred to healthcare professionals for analysis and diagnosis. However, although attempts at developing wrist-wear technology capable of detecting heart problems have been in the works for some time, most of these devices lack the algorithms necessary for accurate sensing of biorhythms related to cardiovascular diseases.
Accurate prediction and diagnosis of heart problems are essential in today’s world, as cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of mortality worldwide, accounting for 31 percent of all deaths. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 83 percent of all deaths in Sri Lanka are attributable to non-communicable diseases, with cardiovascular diseases accounting for 34 percent of that figure. Yet, in 2017, there were only three cardiologists serving in two of the five districts of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. With more than one million people residing in the Northern Province, the need for cardiology and echocardiogram (ECG) services in the region is overwhelming.
PulzSolutions’ PMB promises to help bridge that gap by providing ECG services in a region that is severely underserved. The PMB is capable of remotely tracking the ECG, heart rate, and motion of the person and most importantly possesses the ability to pre-identify several Cardiac Arrhythmia types (e.g., heart attacks) with assistance from a 24×7 live monitoring team of doctors.
The PMB is the product of successful innovation, supported by intellectual property rights. Initially, a group of undergraduate students at the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology set out to develop an ECG jacket. With continuous improvement, they managed to create a more compact design in the form of a belt with electrodes attached.
The most innovate feature of this device is its proprietary algorithm, which gives PMB the ability to predict heart attacks. The first “ultrasound cardiography” occurred in 1953, paving the way for the modern ECG wherein sound waves are used to produce images of the heart valves or chambers to determine blood flow, pressure, and functionality. Through PMB, electrodes attached to specific areas of the chest are used to produce sound waves. A synchronized smart device transmits data from the belt to cloud servers. PMB’s special algorithm then analyzes the data for any abnormalities. Should any be detected, a team of expert doctors provides 24×7 real-time monitoring to warn patients prior to any potential heart attack.
PMB, which is currently marketing its device to hospitals, has enjoyed a successful path to commercialization. PMB is also the first wearable ECG device developed in Sri Lanka, and the first approved by the ministry of health. Since 2013, PulzSolutions’ PMB has earned several innovation awards, including the Dell Power Pitch 2014 and the 3rd Commonwealth Digital Health Conference & Awards: Digital Health Sri Lanka 2018 Non-Communicable Diseases Category. It has benefitted from venture capital investment by Hemas Holdings, PLC, a large Sri Lankan conglomerate focused on health care.
As is increasingly the case for many medical device innovators, PMB has been able to secure its work and investors’ funding by incorporating a proprietary algorithm into its invention. It thus can rely on trade secret protection, a form of intellectual property that is increasingly important as business models based on machine learning and data become more prominent. Trade secret protection is particularly accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises due to its lower upfront cost than patents. Governments are increasingly recognizing this fact and reforming laws to promote effective trade secret protection. Nevertheless, innovation flourishes best where all forms of IP are reliable and effective so that entrepreneurs have a full range of business models on which to build innovative solutions.
PulzSolutions is one of the many innovative organizations working to meet the needs of the underserved regions of South Asia. It provides further proof that innovation occurs everywhere. Strong intellectual property protection will nurture and support the continued research and development of these types of innovations.