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UF smart sensor sends smartphone alert if mending patient is too daring on their feet

warup Bhunia, Ph.D. and R. James Toussaint, M.D.

UF engineering professor Swarup Bhunia, Ph.D., left, and UF Health foot and ankle surgeon R. James Toussaint, M.D., invented a sensor that can help protect patients after foot and ankle surgery. The device could have many additional applications. (Photo by Nate Guidry)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A physician isn’t going to follow a patient home to ensure they’re doing as instructed and not placing weight on a surgically repaired foot.

“Sometimes someone swears they didn’t put weight on their foot, but then they come to their next appointment with a dirty cast,” said University of Florida Health foot and ankle surgeon R. James Toussaint, M.D.

It’s not that the patient is necessarily at fault. Life happens. And some people have nerve damage called neuropathy that makes it difficult to feel when pressure is placed on an injured foot. The patient might be a child who doesn’t know better.

The solution: innovation.

Toussaint and UF engineering professor Swarup Bhunia, Ph.D., have invented a new wearable Bluetooth device they hope will revolutionize patient safety in orthopaedics, allowing doctors and patients to receive real-time alerts from an unobtrusive electronic sensor pasted on a limb or worn in a shoe. Toussaint is the division chief in foot and ankle surgery in the UF College of Medicine’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine.

For example, a patient with the device attached to the bottom of a surgically repaired foot might receive an alert on their smartphone saying, “Please don’t put weight on your foot.”

Their doctor would also receive an alert, allowing their office to contact the patient to ensure they understand their movement restrictions and to offer advice. The sensor could also be helpful for children, sending an alert to a child’s parent. Other users might be adults unable to care for themselves.

“I’ve been thinking about this sensor for several years,” Toussaint said. “I’m a foot and ankle surgeon. And one of the biggest issues I see is that patients, despite their best efforts, have difficulty complying with weight-bearing restrictions.”

The device is modular, meaning more than one can be placed on the body to monitor different parameters aside from pressure, including temperature, moisture, and forces applied in different directions.

It also has the potential to help prevent skin ulcers in bed-bound patients.

“Let’s say you have someone who is nonverbal or insensate, and they’re lying in bed and you’re worried about an ulcer forming,” Toussaint said. “Our sensor could alert a caregiver or nurse to an impending area of concern. They could adjust the patient’s position to protect them.”

Initial efforts are focused on the foot and ankle. But the researchers believe the sensor is suitable for numerous medical applications, including performance measurement in sports like baseball and golf.

“This device is so promising and versatile in its application that I believe, even though we are solving one specific problem here, it can be extended to many other domains,” Bhunia said.

Toussaint’s idea flowered after he emailed Bhunia, the Semmoto Endowed Professor and director of the UF Warren B. Nelms Institute for the Connected World.

“I was looking for the right engineering partner to make it happen,” Toussaint said.

The idea intrigued Bhunia, a leading expert in smart, connected systems. The two, who hadn’t previously known each other, worked on it for about 18 months before a prototype was ready.

“I have not seen a device that is modular in the sense that you can put multiple sensors on a patient, and the devices form a network, connecting to your cell phone so that it can collect data from different parts of the body,” Bhunia said. “Based on the data, you can run an artificial intelligence analytics algorithm to detect meaningful patterns from the data, then report back to the patient or doctor.”

Toussaint hopes to conduct a clinical trial to prove the device’s utility for foot and ankle patients. The eventual goal is to license the product to a manufacturer with the resources to bring it to market.

Reiner Dizon-Paradis, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research associate at UF, joins Toussaint and Bhunia on a utility patent issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office giving them and the university exclusive rights to the device for 20 years.

“We hope this can be a big step forward in patient safety, allowing someone to recover as quickly as they can without the kind of setbacks that commonly occur when a patient tries to do too much after surgery,” Toussaint said. “We think it could be a game-changer in patient care and rehab.”

About the author

Bill Levesque
Science Writer

For the media

Media contact

Peyton Wesner
Communications Manager for UF Health External Communications (352) 273-9620