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New wearable technology to monitor COVID-19 patients

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Wearable technology that monitors patients' vital signs is being used with COVID-19 patients on the isolation ward at the John Radcliffe Hospital.

The technology has been developed by biomedical engineers and medical researchers supported by the NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre (BRC).

The Oxford BRC's Technology and Digital Health theme, led by Prof Peter Watkinson of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, and Prof Lionel Tarassenko of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, have been developing and testing the concept of a virtual High-Dependency Unit (vHDU) for the past 18 months.

A vHDU is a general hospital ward in which high-risk patients are monitored using a new generation of wearable sensors that measure pulse rate, respiratory rate and blood oxygen saturation, combined with Bluetooth-linked tablet computers and smart alerting algorithms.

Prof Watkinson, a consultant in intensive care and acute medicine at Oxford University Hospitals, said: "It became clear at the end of February 2020 that the technology and software developed for the vHDU research project could be adapted for the isolation ward for COVID-19 patients in the John Radcliffe Hospital.

"For those COVID-19 patients who do not need to be ventilated, it is important for their recovery that they remain mobile, so the wearable technology is ideal."

The aims of this approach are twofold: to reduce the burden on nursing staff, allowing them to perform vital-sign observations for high-risk patients at the same rate as for lower-risk patients, and to improve early detection when a patient's vital signs become abnormal.

Three post-doctoral Research Assistants from the Institute of Biomedical Engineering - Cristian Roman, Mauro Santos and Marco Pimentel - worked tirelessly throughout the first three weeks of March 2020 to ensure that the modified patient monitoring system could be deployed soon after the opening of the isolation ward.

The system went live with its first four ambulatory patients on Monday 23 March 2020.

The processed vital sign data is made available to the nursing staff outside the isolation ward using the hospital WiFi, and is displayed on a dashboard which allows the physiological status of the patients to be tracked in real time.

Sarah Vollam, a Critical Care Nurse Researcher, said: "The vHDU system looks fantastic running on the John Warin Ward. The biomedical engineers have done an amazing job making the system user-friendly and intuitive, which is key to implementing new technology in a stressful environment.

"The nurses are very keen to use it to enhance not only their patients' safety but also their own, by limiting their exposure to the virus."