A biomedical engineering professor at the University of Rhode Island has been an integral part of developing smartwatches for at-home speech therapy to continuously monitor patients.

Kunal Mankodiya, assistant professor in the electrical, computer and biomedical engineering department at URI, said he saw the success of the smartphone as potential for at-home care. He needed something that could track patients’ health care information constantly and would be in contact with the user’s skin.

Mankodiya and other members of his team looked at other daily-used objects like phones that they could use to track patients. He said they considered glasses and clothes, but found not everyone wears glasses, and clothes cannot have the necessary embedded electronics in them for consumers to use at home. Finally, he realized that if people can use smartphones then they could also use smartwatches.

“The decision is more towards matching the technology to your population,” Mankodiya said. “And that’s why we found the smartwatch, which is on your body. It is always in contact with the skin, [which is] very important for medical devices; [that] you are always in touch with the skin, and you could collect data which is very important medical data that physicians could make some diagnostic decisions from.”

Personalization is a key part of the smartwatch’s success in at-home therapy, according to Mankodiya. Each patient has the ability to set specific parameters on areas they wish to improve, such as the clarity or volume of their speech. Mankodiya said patients can also set reminders to do their exercises to motivate them and ultimately help improve their speech.

“Because if you do exercise better, your health will be better,” he said. “So same thing goes with speech exercises: if you do it regularly you should improve in your speech and the whole part is that personalization.”

The education system in India almost prevented Mankodiya from entering into the biomedical engineering field. Mankodiya said students in India entered into a central admission process based off of their test scores after high school, but students could only be placed in an area that still had open seats when it was their turn to choose.

The student in front of Mankodiya took the last open spot in biomedical engineering, causing Mankodiya to lose hope. Fortunately, another student dropped their admission to biomedical engineering and gave Mankodiya the spot.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Saurashtra University in India in 2003, Mankodiya moved to Germany. He said he and his group did “pioneering work in wearable device design” similar to the recently popular Fitbit and smartwatches, while he worked toward his doctorate at the University of Luebeck.

“I designed wearable patient-monitoring devices so that patients, when they are no longer in hospitals and they go back home, still would be able to monitor their medical data by using those wearable devices,” Mankodiya said. “So that was a concept and I designed prototypes, [during] that time in Germany, and it was well taken in the community. And by that time you already started seeing the wearable devices in the medical domain and especially in medical community. [But] it wasn’t there for the consumer side.”

URI’s department of electrical, computer and biomedical engineering attracted Mankodiya to the university in his search for a faculty job because it was the only one in the country he found with this exact name. In his time at the university, Mankodiya has brought the wearable technology into the classroom, such as in ELE 491/591 Wearable Internet of Things course.

“This course is designed for groups of students to dream, prototype and develop different types of wearable tech,” Cody Goldberg, a senior in the biomedical engineering program at URI, said. “The way this course is taught is very typical engineering style.  The professor gives you everything you need, and you set out and do it.  No real hand holding unless you really, really need it.”

Goldberg is one of two students who worked directly with Mankodiya and Dr. Leslie Mahler, communicative disorders professor at URI, on the smartwatches for speech therapy. He said he “designed and developed the Android platform” for the field research.

“It is much nicer having a professor who actually has gotten his feet wet than one who hasn’t stepped foot in the pool,” Goldberg said. “You can tell by the way they teach. I’ve had professors who are all talk but no show when it comes to the information they present.  Having real world items to back it up, [as] in Kunal’s case, is extremely helpful and useful for him and the students learning under him.  There is much more access and reliability in networking this way.”