Digital innovations have transformed health care in numerous ways. People today use smartphone apps to monitor their health and chat online with physicians. In the future, sensors on our bodies, in our clothes, and inside the objects around us could keep track of almost our every move, relaying information to computer systems that can inform medical professionals when something is wrong.
IEEE Senior Member Joel Rodrigues is developing the networking technologies that will make these electronic health, or e-health, applications possible. As a professor of informatics, Rodrigues leads the Next-Generation Networks and Applications group at the University of Beira Interior, in Covilhã, Portugal. There he is focused on wireless and body sensor networks, mobile and cloud computing, and information management. He is also a senior researcher at the Institute for Telecommunications, a national research laboratory, and is cofounder and chair of the IEEE Communications Society’s E-Health Technical Committee.
Most recently, he was part of a national consortium of researchers from academia and industry, led by Microsoft Portugal, that developed assistive technologies to help the elderly live independently. He also coauthored the book Ambient Assisted Living, coming out this month.
As an engineer, Rodrigues says he “works hard to further state-of-the-art technologies that help shape our world and create a better future for coming generations.”
THE E-HEALTH UMBRELLA
E-health, Rodrigues explains, is simply an umbrella term covering technologies that contribute to health. These include electronic health records; telemonitoring devices, which track patients’ conditions remotely; and mobile health apps and wearables.
Rodrigues has a special interest in wireless body area networks, which are embedded in clothes and even implanted under the skin. There they can continuously monitor such vital signs as blood pressure, glucose levels, body temperature, and respiratory rate. These sensors must communicate wirelessly with one another and with central computer systems quickly and securely, using minimal energy and bandwidth. Rodrigues is working on new kinds of architectures and communication protocols for these body sensor networks as well as mobile health applications.
His expertise was put to good use in the assisted living project. Among other things, the researchers developed sensors for checking air quality, voice-recognition systems to help users operate electronics, and motion-sensing systems that monitor people’s movements to ensure they are safe. Rodrigues helped develop algorithms and computation techniques to wirelessly transmit the tremendous amount of data these sensors generate and then collect and analyze it all. He also developed a mobile app that can alert emergency services if a user falls.
Because aspects of e-health raise privacy concerns, he is also working on data encryption algorithms. While conceding that privacy is a valid concern, Rodrigues believes the benefits outweigh the risks. “Patients can easily access all their medical information online,” he says, “and so can their physicians.”
A BUSY VOLUNTEER
As a computer science and engineering student at the University of Coimbra, in Portugal, Rodrigues became friends with several medical school students, which led him to thinking about how technology could aid medicine.
Graduating in 1995, Rodrigues became a network and system administrator at the university’s hospital. He soon moved to Covilhã, about 140 kilometers east, to head the computer science and information department at the University of Beira Interior’s new hospital. In 2002 he joined IEEE as a graduate student member—the same year he began pursuing a Ph.D. in informatics engineering at the university, which he completed in 2006.
Rodrigues became secretary of the IEEE Computer Society’s Communications Software Technical Committee in 2008 before becoming its chair. He then helped found the E-Health Technical Committee in 2009. As its chair, one of his responsibilities is to bolster the committee’s conferences and events. To this end, he is involved in IEEE HealthCom and chairs its steering committee. This year’s conference will cover topics such as body and wearable sensor systems, e-health security and privacy, and mobile telemedicine.
Rodrigues also organized and chaired the first International Workshop on Medical Applications Networking, where he launched an e-health track. He edited the IEEE Communications Society’s Best Readings in E-Health—a Web page that features books, journals, articles, and papers on the topic.
For Rodrigues, IEEE holds a unique position in the growth of e-health. It brings together technology experts of all stripes, including those involved in sensor networks, biomedicine, communications, and computing. His goal is to leverage this expertise by getting everyone to work together to take e-health to the next level—and the next level after that.
“We have excellent, world-renowned researchers on every technical topic under the IEEE umbrella,” he says. “Members can play key roles, not just in developing e-health applications but also in the areas of standards, security, and privacy, and in promoting their adoption around the globe.”
Being a leader in IEEE helps him broaden his reach, points out Rodrigues. “It is the best way to be involved in the engineering community and have an impact.”