A product developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is being used to remotely monitor patients with COVID-19, using wireless signals to detect breathing patterns of people who do not require hospitalization ― but who must be watched closely to ensure their conditions remain stable.
The device, developed at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory by professor Dina Katabi and her colleagues, could in some situations lower the risk of caregivers becoming infected while treating patients with the coronavirus.
“It really increases the safety that we can provide to doctors, nurses, and staff, and at the same time be able to access information that is otherwise unavailable," Katabi said.
The device, called Emerald, looks like a small box akin to a Wi-Fi router. It’s not yet in wide use, but is being rolled out at a time when the opportunities for remote medical technologies are increasing as health care workers look for ways to care for patients from a distance.
About 20 of the devices are currently being used to monitor COVID-19 patients, Katabi said. The company also has a batch in the field that have been used to observe patients with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and other conditions.
Researchers have found that the devices’ ability to monitor patients’ vital signs can be advantageous. They use artificial intelligence to look for the patterns in a patient’s vital signs by sensing disruptions in wireless signals. MIT says the devices emit about 1,000 times less radiation than a cellphone.
Dr. Ipsit Vahia, a geriatrics psychiatrist at McLean Hospital, said he was able to use one of the Emerald devices with a COVID-19 patient at Heritage Assisted Living in Framingham. The facility is also working on a dementia-focused project using Emerald.
Vahia said the device enabled him to monitor his patient from home, expanding the options to care for her while observing social distancing.
“It’s allowed us to really track her progress and make changes to her treatment based on the data,” he said. It also means fewer interactions between doctor and patient that could increase the risk of infection, he said.
Over time, Vahia observed improvements in how his patient was both breathing and moving around her apartment. Her breaths per minute dropped from 23 to 18, a sign that her respiratory symptoms were improving.
With hospitals in Massachusetts and around the country watching carefully for signs that their capabilities will be strained by an influx of virus patients, Katabi said using devices like hers may be a way to improve outcomes for patients who are sent home to recuperate.
Katabi said she’s thinking about ways to make the product more available during the crisis. She’s talking to hospital systems in the Boston area and in other states, though she declined to name them.
Katabi said such technology will be particularly useful at residential facilities serving elderly people. The staffs there who would normally check on an ill patient may not have the same level of training and equipment to deal with infectious diseases such as COVID-19, but the patients will need attention because the disease can escalate quickly.
“Things can change in no time, so it’s really important that when you send those patients home, that you can keep an eye on them, following their vital signs and their status,” she said.
Vahia, who is the medical director at the McLean Institute for Technology in Psychiatry, said advancements like Emerald will also be vital in making sure that patients’ mental health does not suffer while they are in isolation and dealing with the virus.
For instance, the device can tell when a patient is pacing, which might indicate that they are feeling anxious and that a caregiver should check in with them.
“As the broader field of remote monitoring matures, I think it will give clinicians better data to assess both the . . . medical status for patients, as well as their mental health,” he said. “More than anything else, we recognize that the impact of the pandemic goes beyond just the respiratory symptoms caused by the virus.”