Nothing prepares you for the sheer misery you feel when watching a loved one slowly succumb to a neurologic disorder like Parkinson’s disease. I should know: I watched my grandmother battle with it for more than two decades until it finally took her life.
During that time, I felt like I understood the disease. I could trace the disease’s subtle progress more in what she couldn’t do than what she could. While I could see her hands shaking and noticed her off-balance gait, I more easily understood the toll of the disease when she wasn’t able to do the little things that she loved, like pick me up from school or cook for me and my grandpa.
Last week I met with Yan Fossat, VP of Klick Labs, who showed me a new wearable armband developed by Klick Labs that can record and play back the tremors felt by a Parkinson’s disease patient. I came to the meeting armed with the preconception that no device could help me better understand the symptoms that I had witnessed the impact of for so many years.
I was not ready for what actually happened. The electrodes in the armband shocked my forearm repeatedly, my muscles contracting to the point where the experience quickly shifted from uncomfortable to somewhat painful.
I tried to pick up my mobile phone — an automatic motion I do more than I care to admit — and, finally, after a painstaking few minutes of working to get it into a normal position in my hand, I realized I had no shot at ever getting it past the lockscreen. In that moment, I felt as though I understood the impossibility of the disease — in losing control over your own body, and the very real frustration of being unable to complete even the simplest of tasks.
That kind of understanding is the driving force behind the device, which is known as the SymPulse, said Fossat. “We started it really as a thought experiment,” he said “Could we create empathy for Parkinson’s disease patients?”
See also: Is a Crisis Brewing for Watson Health?
The SymPulse works by converting muscle spasms into data through the use of an electromyogram, a device that measures the electrical activity of muscles. It can then transmit that information wirelessly through Bluetooth to an armband with electrodes that can then mimic tremors and muscle contractions.
“We can digitize the muscle spasm using the electromyogram and transmit them to the caregiver, and then using electrical muscle stimulation make their muscle contract in the same way as the patient,” Fossat explained.
Klick Labs, the innovation research center of Klick Health, a healthcare agency, developed the device.
The importance of empathy in the clinical setting is still being understood. Some research posits that when physicians better understand what their patients are going through, those patients have better outcomes according to one 2012 study. The research, published in Academic Medicine, found that patients of physicians with high empathy scores had a significantly lower rate of complications, leading researchers to conclude that physician empathy “should be considered an important component of clinical competence.”
There are signs, too, that empathy is a skill sorely needed among physicians. One clinical trial, also conducted in 2012, that studied empathy levels in physicians and residents at Massachusetts General Hospital, found that 53% of physicians reported that their empathy for patients had declined over the past several years, while only 33% reported an increase in empathy for their patients.
Fossat said that a device like SymPulse could eventually be used in a whole range of diseases. “You can imagine using telemedicine across the planet, where if you have a patient with a rare form of a disease, They could transmit the symptoms to a specialist somewhere else and they could make a diagnosis with way more accuracy than just asking questions or looking through a video,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested the device was created for a client, it was inspired by a client request — not developed for one.