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Minding Your Own Medical Business

Clothes Make the Man (Healthier)

Simplicity, information, and affordability are also the driving forces behind Sundaresan Jayaraman's research at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Jayaraman, PhD, a professor of textile engineering at Georgia Tech, has been working on the smart shirt. This item of clothing contains a plug-in sensor that unobtrusively monitors a person's heart rate, ECG, respiration, temperature, and a host of vital functions, alerting the wearer or his physician if there is a problem.

One of the first applications for the product will be for babies at risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), Jayaraman says, and for patients who need around-the-clock monitoring, such as very ill geriatric and heart-bypass patients. But eventually he sees everyone wearing them -- and predicts they'll even come with lifestyle-enhancing options, like an MP3 player or a dictation machine.

Driving Jayaraman's research, he says, is his love -- and concern -- for his aging parents.

"One of the things I worry about is my parents who live in India," he says. "I want to be able to give them some shirts and monitor their health from Georgia Tech. That way I feel secure that they are in great shape. Should something happen to them, automatically it calls their personal physician and I am also notified, so whatever needs to be done can be done."

Like the smart home, the beauty of the shirt lies in its ease of use.

"My philosophy is: When you use a microwave oven, you just put in coffee and punch in a time; you don't have to know about what the microprocessor does," he says. "My ultimate goal is to turn clothing in something like that: You don't have to be an expert in either clothing technology or computing technology -- just put it on, and it does what you want it to do, under your control. This is what I call invisible computing."

And the learning curve needs to be a shallow one.

"When I am sick, do you expect me to use a manual to learn how to use a gadget? It needs to be intuitively obvious to the casual observer," says Jayaraman. "We need our medical gadgets to head in that direction."

While many of these devices sound promising, only time will tell if they destined to be embraced by the masses and the marketplace -- or if they'll end up gathering dust in Minneapolis, in the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices.

Edited by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on June 27, 2003

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