Wearables are extremely popular among the fitness conscious, counting steps, measuring heart rates, and more. But for them to become an all-encompassing health diagnostic tool – like the cool, tricorder-wielding doctors of the future use – they have to go a bit further and give you a more detailed view of your actual health.

This need to kick it up a notch inspired engineers at the University of California San Diego to develop a flexible, wearable device that captures electrocardiogram (EKG) data and lactate levels, both critical pieces of information for diagnosing and monitoring the body’s cardiovascular health.

EKG: The Next Generation?

For patients with heart disease, this small device – called the Chem-Phys patch – could very well be a lifesaver.

Currently, if someone walks in to the ER with symptoms of heart attack, the patient is plugged in to a bulky EKG machine by way of numerous patches places around the torso where the heart is monitored for a brief time to determine whether or not a heart attack was or has actually taken place.

However, this gives health professionals a quick glimpse at what a patient is actually experiencing. For ongoing heart disease cases, constant and long-term monitoring helps to better assess and address issues as they arise.

This is where the Chem-Phys patch comes in handy. Its sensors can be worn on the body, transmitting data to a portable device by way of Bluetooth, and can run throughout an entire day while the patient goes about their regular lives. You aren’t stuck in a bed for an extended period of time if you don’t need to be.

For athletes, this technology offers additional insight into training and how to best achieve maximum efficiency during workouts. A simple heart rate monitor will tell you how many beats per minute you’re achieving, but it won’t tell you how close you actually are to your physical limit, or what type of toll an activity is having on your body.

Being able to measure lactate levels alone puts this technology a step above and beyond today’s wearables.

Wearables going where no one’s gone before

Currently, the sensors are created using a screen printing process that produces a thin, flexible polyester patch that can be attached to the skin. This patch includes two EKG electrodes on either side of an electrode specializing in sensing lactate levels.

These patches are then connected to a small, portable printed circuit board that can send and receive signals via low-energy Bluetooth to a smartphone or computer.

The technology is still in its infancy, with this early progress being an exciting proof of concept. Now, researchers and engineers need to focus on optimization and testing of additional sensors, as well as perfecting the overall design to ensure maximum efficiency and reliability.

Once completed, this technology could open the door to a wide variety of tracking and monitoring solutions for not only cardiovascular health and lactate levels, but for other critical chemical markets including magnesium and potassium. Additional vital signs, such as body temperature, respiration rate, and more could also be achieved with additional development.