Wearable and Portable Sensors for Personal Telehealth

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Personal telehealth is the use of wearable, portable or stationary devices to record and track data related to personal health parameters, with the intent to transmit the data to a remote service for others to view. In contrast to certain other applications of telehealth, you don’t need a health care professional to manipulate the device or send the data. It’s just you and the device.

Domains of personal telehealth

The Continua Health Alliance described three broad domains for the application of personal telehealth:

  • Disease management - coping with and controlling chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and heart disease
  • Aging independently - maintaining independence as long as possible at home, rather than an assisted living facility or nursing home
  • Health and fitness - maintaining health and preventing illness through diet, exercise, and other habits

Personal telehealth for those three domains may overlap. For example, a heart rate monitor is useful for patients with heart disease as well as athletes. This article will focus on wearable or portable sensors used in personal telehealth systems.

Most of us are familiar with wearable or portable health sensors as part of the burgeoning mHealth movement. Many of the following sensors can detect changes in disease status even if you aren’t feeling any symptoms.

  • Glucometer: Measures the concentration of glucose (sugar) in the blood, which is relevant to people with diabetes, borderline diabetes, or low blood sugar. Traditional glucometers require a finger prick to sample the blood, while several technologies are being refined to measure glucose levels without breaking the skin.
  • Blood pressure cuff: Measures blood pressure, which is relevant to individuals with hypertension. The cuff fits around the upper arm (ideal) or wrist.
  • Peak flow meter: Measures the mount air you push out with your lungs, which is relevant to those with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Pulse oximeter: Measures the oxygen level in the blood and heart rate via a probe placed on the fingertip, forehead, earlobe, or nose. This is important for patients with conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure
  • Heart rate monitor: Measures the heart rate in beats per minute.
  • Heart rhythm monitor: Traces the electrical rhythm of the heart. AliveCor is an FDA-cleared portable electrocardiogram (ECG) monitor which attaches to a smartphone. It uses finger sensors to record ECGs and detect atrial fibrillation. The companion app can send the captured information to a physician for interpretation.
  • Pedometer or accelerometer: Measures steps or other body movements. When connected to an appropriate app, some of these devices give information about the quality and quantity of your sleep. Read more about how a sleep specialist compared the accuracy of sleep monitoring devices to the gold standard of a medical-grade sleep study.
  • Personal emergency response systems: These devices have come a long way since the “I've fallen, and I can't get up!” 1989 commercial by LifeCall. Models can now detect falls automatically without requiring the user to push a button.
  • As Apple, Samsung, and Google strive to conquer the mHealth market, we'll see greater capabilities in smartphones, smartwatches, and other devices. Some stand-alone devices will become obsolete.

Some of us are perfectly satisfied to link sensors to their phones or computers to keep track of our health parameters. This type of self-monitoring can be very beneficial. But if you take it a step further and transmit the data to a remote service to receive feedback or other response, then the process enters the realm of personal telehealth. Learn more about the people, organizations, and systems on the other end who view the data.


Carroll R et al. Continua: An Interoperable Personal Healthcare Ecosystem. IEEE Pervasive Computing 2007;6(4):90-94. Accessed on October 20, 2014.

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