Formula 1 technology used in hospital
- 30 July 2012
- From the section Technology
At first glance, a four-and-a-half-year-old with a serious heart condition and a Formula 1 racing car have little in common.
But the telemetrics that assess a car's performance on the track are now being used to monitor Damian Singh as he recovers from a cardiac arrest in the intensive care ward of Birmingham Children's Hospital (BCH).
It is the first time such a system has been adapted for use on humans.
Cars on the race track, like patients in hospital, need to be constantly monitored. Sensors on the vehicles feed back data to a team of engineers who will make adjustments, either trackside or after the race, to improve performance next time around.
By contrast, most hospitals rely on a combination of paper charts - plotting the vital signs of patients, from heart rate to blood pressure - and the four-hourly observations conducted by nurses and doctors.
Dr Heather Duncan, a consultant in paediatric intensive care at BCH, wanted a digital-based system to sit alongside the traditional monitoring methods.
A chance meeting with Peter van Manen, managing director of McLaren Electronics, proved fruitful.
"I was speaking at an event that Dr Duncan was attending to look for a paediatric early-warning system," he told the BBC.
"It soon became clear, when we discussed it, that there were lots of things that we do routinely in Formula 1 that are not dissimilar as that for patients in a hospital.
"If you were to take the real-time data system technology and put it into a hospital, it should be possible to extend and improve paper-based data on patients," he added.
The Formula 1 system is used to coping with vast amounts of data - each car has about 130 parameters and 15,000 health checks - so the software can quickly "learn" what is normal for individual patients.
As Damian is still in intensive care, he is wired up to a series of monitors and these are used by the McLaren system to collect continuous data about his heart rate, respiration, oxygen levels and blood pressure.
It was too expensive to have every patient in the hospital wired up in this way, said Dr Duncan.
"The aim is to move beyond that to continuous wireless monitoring," she explained.
It is likely that would be in the form of plaster with a layer of electronics to allow it to "talk" wirelessly to the system.
"Patients want something that is as least invasive as possible," said Dr Duncan.
Constant monitoring offers two huge benefits for doctors.
"It will warn us about the patients wearing it but we will also archive the data so that we can learn from it," she said.
Currently data collected in the intensive care ward has to be deleted after 96 hours - so having long-term data on patients for the first time could prove extremely valuable.
"We will be able to look back on patients in much more detail and look for signs, say of a cardiac arrest, and ask was it predictable? Could we have done something different?"
Data analysts have been drafted in to help make sense of the information and create a simple-to-use early-warning system - with red signifying changes to patients that need immediate attention, amber suggesting slight changes and green representing normality.
Dr Duncan hopes the system will be web-based so that doctors coming onto their shifts can access it from laptops or tablet computers.
"It could be transformational," she said.
"Doctors can go to their screen and see where the most sick patients are and can plan their day around that," she said.
Mr van Manen has wider ambitions.
"If you have a patient with a chronic condition, he or she can be monitored at home because they can be connected to experts in hospital and, if changes are detected, consultants can see the data and make a decision about what to do next," he said.
The trial system at BCH is in the early stages and McLaren engineers are working closely with doctors and data analysts at the hospital to make sure it is successful.
The hospital has not yet purchased the system but Mr van Manen is hopeful that it and many others will.
"The NHS or individual hospital will be buying a system to get better clinical outcomes and reduce the patient's stay in hospital - a more efficient system basically," he said.
Damian's mother, Magdalena, says the system has helped her to deal with the stress of her son's stay in intensive care.
"I like to see the numbers and I am learning what they mean and what they should be.
"It means I know a bit more, I am learning about his condition and what is normal for him," she said.
"It is very reassuring seeing the changes and seeing that he is getting better."