Telemedicine’s disregard for distance simultaneously extends and limits medical care. With a solid Internet connection, doctors can conduct video consultations with patients who are not in the same room with them. However, most physicians cannot easily conduct a physical exam via video cameras or still images. A dermatologist may analyze high-resolution images of a dark spot on a patient’s arm to determine if further investigation is necessary. Ophthalmologists who view fundus images from afar via smartphone cameras equipped with special purpose accessories can make the call for treatment or continued observation. Telemedicine augments dermatology, ophthalmology, and any medical specialty able to make valid observations via still images. Telemedicine so far has not been a good option for physicians who require inspection of bodies or body parts in motion. For example, physiotherapists can’t practice telemedicine to diagnose injury or assess patient recovery because they cannot determine weight distribution and range of motion with two-dimensional video.
University of Melbourne School of Engineering Ph.D. candidate Deepti Aggarwal has a personal reason for developing SoPhy: smart socks designed to provide physiotherapists real-time information about lower body movements. Aggrawal’s father could not get medical treatment for an injured ankle because he could not afford to travel for a face-to-face consult from his remote hometown in India. The SoPhy socks have three embedded sensors that capture weight distribution, range of movement, and foot orientation while exercising. During video consultations, patients wearing the smart socks perform exercises such as squats, toe curls, and raising up on their tip-toes. Aggrawal’s software converts the sensor data into foot sketches that the clinician can use in addition to viewing the video content. According to a University of Melbourne report, physiotherapists in a trial at Royal Children’s Hospital had increased confidence in their assessments with video footage augmented by SoPhy output. The doctors also could give patients real-time feedback on their movements.
Sensor-equipped wearables increase the potential for telemedicine and telehealth services, and not just in remote areas or with patients who have limited mobility. Telemedicine’s reach and efficiency could enable healthcare professionals and organizations to serve more patients with significantly improved patient comfort and convenience.