Implanted Sensors: The Future of Early Detection for Heart Failure

22-02-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

A UK patient received an implantable heart sensor to monitor their condition, detecting heart failure and preventing attacks and death. The sensor is implanted in a vein, inflating a balloon to hold it in place. The patient wears a wireless charging belt to power the sensor, providing preventative healthcare at an earlier stage to reduce the high cost of treatment. However, privacy concerns need to be addressed for future safety. What challenges does heart failure present, what does the sensor do, and how will implanted sensors help with future healthcare?

What challenges does heart failure present?

Many people spend their entire lives devoted to maintaining a healthy life, with plenty of exercise, good amounts of sleep, and eating healthy foods. Frequent health checks look for traces of cancer and other potential issues, treatments help to cure such ailments, and we tell ourselves that nothing short of an accident will get us. And then, suddenly, while you are doing your morning jog, sharing a cup of coffee, or sitting at home reading a book, your heart gives out, unnecessarily ending a life. While this hasn’t personally happened to me, it happened to a friend who now leaves behind a wife and two children. No amount of healthy living could have prevented the time bomb that showed no signs or no symptoms.

This is precisely how heart failure works the vast majority of the time, and it is the cause of sudden cardiac death syndrome that sees over 300,000 deaths in the US each year. While the use of wearable sensors may provide potential early warnings, it’s clear that unless such a heart attack occurs in the presence of others, the chances of survival are slim.

Trying to detect cardiac arrest is also complex in its own nature. The most reliable method for detecting problems with the heart is to perform an ECG, which measures the heart’s electrical activity. While many heart rate monitors use light to detect changes in blood pressure (which are not true ECGs), some devices, such as the Apple Watch, can detect electrical activity by instructing the user to touch the side of the watch with their opposite hand. This allows the watch to measure the potential between two arms, one of the essential readings during an ECG. 

But due to the need for electrodes across the body, 24/7 ECGs are not currently viable, and this means that it is perfectly possible for a condition to go unnoticed. 

Health care technology concept. Vital sign sensing

Researchers create an implantable device capable of detecting heart failure

Recognising the dangers of heart failure, researchers from the UK recently developed an implantable sensor capable of detecting heart failure in its earlier stages. The device is implanted in the inferior vena cava vein, which is responsible for transporting deoxygenated blood back to the heart, and measures the amount of blood returning to the heart. With the use of a collapsible design, the device can be fitted in a single 45-minute session through a catheter via the leg. Once the sensor is placed into the correct position, a small balloon is inflated, which expands the sensor into the walls of the vein, holding it in place.

After surgery, the patient wears a belt for a few minutes that wirelessly charges the sensor via RF energy. Once charged, the sensor continues to work throughout the day, providing wireless updates to medical personnel who can keep track of potential heart failure. If a deterioration in sensor readings is detected, medical staff can instruct the patient to return for further testing, thus providing early warning of heart attacks.

So far, only one patient has been fitted with the device, but they are the first to try the sensor. It is hoped by the researchers that with this technology, the NHS will also be able to save substantial amounts of money through preventative treatments. 

Could implanted sensors be the future of healthcare?

While implantable sensors are still a niche in the medical field, there is a real argument to be made for implanting several sensors for the purpose of medical monitoring. Generally speaking, treating diseases and complications in their early stages is far more cost-effective than their later stages, and using implanted sensors could provide doctors with all the data they need to do just this. 

In the case of private medical industries, these sensors would not only help to reduce the cost of medical insurance for patients but could even help to save money for insurance companies, who will not be required to pay out large sums of money for expensive treatments. The same applies to public health services (such as the NHS), but instead of cheaper private insurance, tax rates could potentially be lowered as funding to the NHS is reduced from a lack of usage. 

At the same time, these devices could be coupled with other smart devices that not only monitor but provide alerts to authorities in life-threatening situations. But implanting sensors and data transmission introduce serious privacy concerns that could be easily exploited for tracking and invasion of privacy. 

Overall, implantable devices introduce many benefits, but they are not without their downsides. Future healthcare treatments will likely incorporate sensors due to the overwhelming benefits they provide, and it will be up to engineers to find ways to make them safe.


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.