After some controversy early in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, face masks are now widely considered an effective means for preventing the spread of virus particles by forming a physical barrier between the wearer and others. But what if a mask could not only stop an infected person from passing on the virus, but also monitor their symptoms without burdening healthcare workers?
“A system that remotely monitors patients’ vital parameters can help reduce face-to-face contact between healthcare workers and patients,” noted Xian Jun Loh, Executive Director of A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE). “Such a remote system also benefits recovering patients by helping them track their progress, relieving the stress on overwhelmed healthcare systems during a pandemic.”
Loh and a team of researchers, in collaboration with Xiaodong Chen from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and Ban Hock Tan, a Senior Consultant from the Infectious Diseases Department, Singapore General Hospital, have developed a mask that can monitor pneumonia-related parameters. “We have monitored in real-time the heart rate, blood pressure, blood oxygen saturation and temperature of a person remotely over seven consecutive hours,” said Loh.
The mask is made of a flexible skin-like material called polydimethylsiloxane, which has embedded within it a non-contact sensor system the researchers have named ‘Lab-on-Mask’. Within the Lab-on-Mask system are various sensors that collect information from the wearer’s face and convert them into electrical signals. The signals are sent to data-processing modules and delivered via a wireless Bluetooth system to an external device, such as a smartphone app, for real-time monitoring.
For example, to measure blood oxygen saturation, infrared light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in the Lab-on-Mask system shine light onto the blood vessels under the skin. A light detector and amplifier receive the reflected light and convert it into electrical signals that inform clinicians about the narrowing and expansion of the patient’s blood vessels. Heart rate and blood pressure are measured in a similar manner using green LEDs.
The researchers confirmed that all measurements made with the smart mask were accurate by comparing them with those measured using standard methods. And as a bonus, the entire system conforms well with the wearer’s face, making the mask comfortable to wear.
In the future, the researchers plan to collaborate with hospitals to promote the use of the smart mask for remote, real-time monitoring of infected patients. They are also considering ways to optimize the mask, such as by adding anti-viral chemical sensors and coatings that can monitor and deactivate viruses.
The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE).