New Optical Sensors for Beds Could Help Improve Patient Care

16-08-2022 | By Robin Mitchell

Researchers have recently developed new optical sensors that can easily be integrated into mattresses and allow patient data to be obtained. What challenges do beds present with patients, what did the researchers develop, and how can integrated sensors help patients?

What challenges do beds present to patients?

Of all equipment used in a hospital, the bed is arguably the most important as it allows patients with a designated area to rest while being taken care of. Of course, the invention of injections, MRI scanners, and medicines are all essential for proper treatment, but the bed is by far one of the oldest pieces of medical equipment. In fact, many ailments can be treated with simple bed rest, and the ability to keep off one's feet can also help to improve mental health. 

But while beds are extremely important, they can also introduce medical complications that must be monitored by medical professionals. One such issue is Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), whereby a blood clot can form through inactivity of the legs. This is why patients who spend long periods in a bed are given blood thinners and often asked to get out of bed and move around.  

When I was hospitalised for COVID, I couldn't find the energy to move out of bed, but the moment the doctor administered a blood thinner directly into my stomach, I spent every day walking about the room so that I no longer needed additional daily shots. That was arguably the most painful thing I have ever experienced and left a bruise the size of a bowling ball). 

Another issue that can arise from long-term bed use is the formation of cysts and sores. If these are not identified by medical professionals, they can become septic and extremely difficult to treat (sometimes being fatal). Moving out of bed can help prevent the formation of such cysts while also allowing patients to be more aware of their existence. 

Researchers develop non-invasive optical sensors for hospital beds

Recognising the challenges patients face in hospital beds, researchers from the University of South Australia have developed a new optical sensor that can be easily integrated into mattresses and inform medical professionals of activities and biodata.

The new sensors utilise fibre optic cables woven into a bed's upper layers while not being on the surface itself. This makes the sensors unnoticeable to patients, thus providing a comfortable experience. Additionally, the sensors can detect movement, breathing, and heart rate, allowing medical professionals to remotely monitor their patients. If movement is not detected within a defined time period, nurses can be called to check on the patient in question to see if there are any issues. 

One significant advantage of the new optical sensors is that they can detect movement without the patient needing to leave the bed, whereas current weight-based systems require the patient to physically leave the bed. As such, small movements can be detected, and this can be indicative of discomfort or inactivity. 

The sensors operate by detecting minute changes in the optical properties of the fibre caused by deformation. By using multiple optical strands in a single cable and laying cables in a grid pattern using a laser source, different images are produced by the final cable depending on the activity, and the researchers were able to demonstrate clear changes in the output signal depending on the motion of the patient.

How can integrated sensors help patients?

While the researchers demonstrated how their sensors could be used to remotely monitor patients, it also has another potential benefit; patient experience. Not everyone likes to be hooked up to machines and sensors, with some patients even becoming agitated. The use of non-invasive sensors that are not directly making contact with patients can be especially useful for those suffering from dementia and autism (strange sensations on the skin and the feeling of being trapped can be particularly upsetting).

Additionally, using sensors that do not require cameras or microphones can also help improve patient privacy. This can make patients feel more at ease knowing that they are not being constantly watched by room cameras. 

Finally, the use of remote sensors can be massively beneficial in controlling infections across hospitals. Secondary infections can cause numerous complications with patients, especially those who have undergone intensive surgeries such as organ replacement and limiting contact between patients and hospital staff can significantly help prevent such spread. 


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.