Smelly, bustling and overfilled with the sick and wounded, hospital waiting rooms mark the stressful beginning to a taxing process sure to include invasive tests and a lengthy diagnosis. The University of Leicester, England, hopes to ameliorate that process with a sensor-laden sick bay that scans patients for symptoms while they wait, lowering doctor workload and speeding up treatment.
The prototype sick bay assembled by Mark Sims, professor of astrobiology and space instrumentation in the Space Research Centre at the University of Leicester, combines a suite of sensors that measure a patient's look, smell and feel. In the room, nitric oxide detectors and mass spectrometers look for chemicals in the patient's breath, infrared cameras identify fevers while other cameras scan skin tone for jaundice, and cardiovascular sensors monitor heart health.
"Technology is sufficiently advanced so that you can go back to the techniques used by doctors a century ago: the look of a patient, the smell of a patient, and the touch of a patient, Sims told InnovationNewsDaily. "We're not trying to replace invasive tests, we're trying to come up with a method of rapid screening. Particularly in an emergency situation, when you can’t wait for the test results. Although all the technologies put together in this diagnostic medical unit have been used, they haven’t been used for very long, and they have never been used together."
The prototype sick bay itself comprises two rooms. One resembles a regular hospital room, with a bed and conventional medical equipment. The other houses all the computers, cameras and sensors needed to monitor a patient.
The sick bay will remain a prototype for some time, as the researchers need to tackle two important problems. First, they need to establish baseline readings on all the devices for healthy adults against which doctors can compare measurements from actual patients. Next, they need to learn how to link all the different sensors together, ensuring that they can actually work together to identify disease states.
Over time, Sims envisions the suite of sensors used in the sick bay becoming smaller and smaller, which in turn would widen their application. First, Sims and his team hope to shrink the equipment enough to fit into a single room, or even an ambulance, so that it can scan patients as they travel to the hospital. Next, the devices could become small enough and cheap enough to reside in a patient's home. Finally, the range of chemical and light detectors could fit into a single device.
"It’s not a tricorder yet," Sims said, referring to the all-in-one medical scanners used on "Star Trek," but we're trying to use this prototype to discover what kind of measurements you need to make, so we can miniaturize it. Hopefully, these can become common medical devices, rather than state-of- the-art research tools."
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