Wearable health tech finds a niche in Japan’s coronavirus battle

Tokyo — For years, Japan’s dwindling population and deepening labor shortage have fueled a quest for high-tech solutions to bridge the manpower gap, particularly in health care. Now, innovation created to replace workers is finding usefulness amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

One example is the “smart undershirt,” a garment outfitted with sensors, a semiconductor and rechargeable battery designed to continuously monitor a wearer’s heart activity. 

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Spools of the thread, woven with conductive silver fibers, used to make Mitsufuji’s wearable tech garments are seen in an image provided by the Kyoto, Japan-based company. Mitsufuji

Conductive silver fibers woven into the fabric near the user’s chest capture electrocardiogram data and transmit it in real time to the wearer’s smartphone via Bluetooth connection — as well as to health care providers. 

“It feels like regular underwear, but a bit more snug,” Ayumu Mitera, CEO of manufacturer Mitsufuji, told CBS News.

Care from afar

Based in Kyoto, Mitsufuji debuted its “hamon” wearable tech garment in 2016, originally targeting public and private wellness programs. It launched with construction contractors interested in monitoring the condition of their workers. 

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In 2018, working with local public health authorities, Mitsufuji began fine-tuning its biometric shirts through a study in Kawamata, a town in Fukushima Prefecture that was largely depopulated by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident.

Located far from major hospitals, and with most of its residents over 65, the tiny local health department was struggling to do its job. Smart shirts enabled just a few staffers to remotely monitor scores of residents, many of whom live alone.

Smart clothing — produced by companies around the world — is on a growth streak, a market currently valued at around $1 billion globally, and forecast to quintuple in size by 2024, driven by demand from sports and fitness users. 

Surge in wearable health tech prompts privacy concerns

At first, Mitera said Mitsufuji had trouble getting buy-in from physicians, who regarded wearable tech as a consumer gadget.

“When we told them electrocardiogram data could be harvested from apparel, nearly every doctor was skeptical,” he told CBS News. “They didn’t think it would yield medical-quality results. But now, most are convinced.”

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Japanese smart garment manufacturer Mitsufuji’s “hamon” undershirt is seen i an image provided by the company. Mitsufuji

Specifically, the company’s biometric shirts track heart function and use algorithms to calculate breathing rate and body temperature. Analytics are being refined to yield other critical data such as blood pressure and glucose levels.

Although only 100 Kawamata residents originally signed on, now about 7% of the town’s mostly elderly inhabitants — including the 71-year-old mayor — are part of the study, Mitera said. He credits the device for detecting irregular heart activity and alerting several residents to see a doctor.

Mitsufuji also signed a contract with a chain of daycare centers to allow caretakers to monitor babies at nap time, when they are most at risk for sudden infant death syndrome. Meanwhile, middle school students in Nara Prefecture are wearing the smart shirts to detect the warning signs of heatstroke.

Corona-wear

In May a new trial began, using the smart undershirt on patients with mild cases of the coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

Health workers have been checking heart activity remotely in patients in Kyoto and other localities as they wear the garment — without directly exposing doctors or nurses to infectious patients.

The trial was originally expected to enlist 50 patients, but as Japan got on top of its epidemic, they ran short of participants. Other localities, however, have asked to take part in the trial as they prepare for the expected second wave of COVID-19 infections later this year.

Mitera took over the then-failing textile company several years ago from his father. In its heyday, the firm specialized in “obi,” or sashes for kimonos. While the company still technically produces apparel, Mitera said that in the wearable tech space they have occupied, form has been largely overshadowed by function. 

“We’re not really a shirt manufacturer,” he said. “We’re in the business of accurately collecting and analyzing data and, at this point, clothing is the best tool.”