This story covers a study on the accuracy and durability of a microfluidic skin patch that collects sweat and analyzes it with the help of a smartphone. Researchers found the device detected lactate, glucose, and chloride ion concentrations as well as sweat pH while sticking to the skin of 21 athletes during a controlled cycling test.
The story rightly cautions that the technology is “experimental” and notes that additional research is needed before it can be used for health monitoring. But if that’s the case, it’s not clear why this is newsworthy. There are no interviews with medical experts that might help readers understand whether this technology has viable clinical applications. Also, the story doesn’t discuss costs, potential harms, or the researchers’ commercial ties.
Wearable technology presents a huge business opportunity, but health benefits can be elusive. Take a recently published study of 471 young adults that showed carrying technology such as a Fitbit to monitor diet and physical activity did not help with weight loss and in fact might have hindered it. Researchers speculated that activity trackers might actually shift a person’s focus from individual behavior to technology and ultimately reduce motivation. When it comes to sweat, there’s evidence it contains some valuable health data. For example, sweat tests are used to confirm a diagnosis of cystic fibrosis in infants. But it’s far from clear that real-time sweat monitoring is superior to existing tools when it comes to screening for health conditions or helping endurance athletes avoid an electrolyte imbalance. Still, there’s money to be made in the athletic market, and it’s not surprising that patch developers are going after it. Even if this technology does prove effective, which is a big if, the ultimate question may be whether the data turns out to benefit athletes or act as a pernicious distraction.
The cost of this patch or of a comparison approach involving sending absorbent pads to a lab aren’t addressed.
The story doesn’t give quantified benefits because there aren’t any–and it should have made that point much stronger versus expanding on speculative uses for the device. We’re told a study “found it worked on sweaty bicyclists, sticking even during a long-distance race in Arizona.” So what does that mean in clinical terms? Nothing yet. The purpose of the study was to show that the patch would stick and collect good data, not to show that it generates a health benefit.
The story also allowed speculation of benefits beyond electrolyte monitoring, too:
(Researcher John A.) Rogers envisions more sophisticated use of such devices, such as real-time monitoring of how the body adjusts during military training, or even to screen people for diseases such as diabetes or cystic fibrosis.
The study doesn’t contain data on adverse effects, and the story doesn’t touch on potential harms. Have patches been tested for skin irritation, for example? More broadly, could skin patches give athletes a false sense of security, prompting them to ignore physical symptoms, or distract them from the basics of proper training, nutrition and hydration? That’s not addressed.
The paragraph mentions one study limitation: that the tested patches were capable of taking only one measurement versus taking multiple measurements over time, which would be essential for monitoring. The story misses other important limitations. For example, it says the patches can measure such things as sweat loss, acidity, and levels of chloride, glucose and lactate, but it does not explain that because a substance is present in sweat does not mean it is a good clinical indicator of what’s going on inside a person’s body. Further, there’s no discussion of whether this device is practical or useful for athletes.
The story does not engage in disease-mongering.
However, it does suggest electrolytes are a concern for athletes engaged in a relatively short bout of exercise. In turn, this notion fuels the sports drink industry which in turn markets to the general public and contributes to the consumption of excess calories and sugar.
The story includes an independent source, a researcher who also works in developing biomedical materials. However, there are no medical experts who could comment on how well this technology might work in clinical or athletic settings.
And, the story does not mention that three of the authors are inventors on a patent application that covers “devices and related methods for epidermal characterization of biofluids.” Nor does it state that two authors are officers and co-founders of MC10, a company that develops wearable, stretchable electronics. Three other researchers are affiliated with cosmetics firm L’Oreal, which began marketing a stretchable patch for UV monitoring this year. L’Oreal was also among the funders of this study.
The story does state that the patch was shown in the study to be just as good as a pad sent to a laboratory for analysis in terms of collecting sweat samples. But there’s no comparison with other alternatives for monitoring health measures such as blood tests, and in the case of dehydration, good old-fashioned thirst.
The story doesn’t describes the steps that need to be taken for this technology to become available to consumers and clinicians. Beyond calling the device “experimental,” it gives no sense as to how close the device is to being marketed.
The story mentions other researchers working on similar technology.
The story does not appear to rely on a news release.