ROCHESTER, N.Y. - Nicholas Conn always knew he wanted to help people - he just didn't know that helping people would mean engineering a toilet seat that can detect congestive heart failure.
"I don't have any particular connection to heart failure," Conn said. "I just always wanted to do this - use health tech to help people with what I do. ... The toilet seat is a great example of that."
The toilet seat looks very much like any other toilet seat. And even though it's a sophisticated medical device, it's designed to be an easy, effortless way for a patient to receive in-home monitoring and avoid unnecessary trips to the hospital.
Conn, a 30-year-old electrical engineer and Rochester Institute of Technology grad, began working with David Borkholder, a professor in RIT's department of electrical and microelectronic engineering, and Dr. Karl Schwarz, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of Rochester, on the seat in 2014.
Their device uses sensors to collect clinical-grade data on a person's heart rate, weight, blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, cardiac output and stroke volume whenever he or she sits on it. The seat then uploads that data to a remote network, where metrics can be examined and changes can be monitored from afar by a patient's care team.
Because patients with heart failure are frequently readmitted to the hospital, the goal is to reduce unnecessary visits by detecting problems before they may even be aware of it, Conn said.
It also eases the burden on doctors by allowing a midlevel provider, such as a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant, to communicate directly with the patient at home, get a sense of what's going on and decide how to proceed.
"We want to take this technology from the hospital and bring it to the everyday person," Conn said. "A toilet seat is definitely a creative solution to the problem."
When Schwarz, a cardiologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, talks about his work on the toilet seat, he's often met with funny looks and stifled giggles.
"The concept of using a toilet seat - everybody laughs. That's why you're talking to me now," Schwarz said. "It falls into the potty humor category, but the fact that we all have to use a toilet is so important because it's about patient compliance."
What makes the seat so ingenious, Schwarz said, is how it eliminates problems with patients caring for themselves when they're not under direct medical supervision.
Patients, particularly those who are in and out of the hospital, often fall into one of two camps when it comes to following a care plan at home: Some are stubborn and don't follow instructions, and others may stop following a prescribed routine as soon as they start to feel better.
It also requires little setup and no instructions, and it guarantees a patient's skin will be in contact with the device's sensors, he said.
'It saved my life': Apple Watch, Fitbit are notifying users of medical emergencies
Study: Young women now more vulnerable to heart disease, cardiac woes
Schwarz compared the seat to popular wearable devices, such as a Fitbit or Apple smartwatch, but noted that those devices provide only certain metrics - and consumers have to come to their own conclusions about the data.
As an actual medical device, the toilet seat measures a plethora of data when a patient uses it. It's effortless and noninvasive, and has the potential to radically change in-home medical care, he said.
"This is huge," Schwarz said. "We're making (patient care) management decisions on a much shorter time scale. Now, we're monitoring continuously and when you combine that with the computers - it's going to revolutionize a lot of things."
Their biggest challenge now is funding, Schwarz said. The trio's company, Heart Health Intelligence, needs an infusion of capital - whether through grants or from an industry sponsor - to begin clinical trials, mass production and start the process to have the seat covered by insurance providers.
They'd like to stay in Rochester, seeing as that's where much of their operations and resources are based, but will pursue opportunities out of state if need be, Schwarz said.
All potty jokes aside, the toilet seat is well on its way to receiving FDA approval and could be readily available for hospitals to issue to patients in the next two or three years.
"It's the real deal," Schwarz said. "It's going to change the way we do things in a fundamental way. Integrating wearables into health care - this is the start."
High blood pressure: Do you have high blood pressure? It depends on which doctor you ask
Heart disease: How many push-ups can you do? Study finds men who can do 40 have lower risk of heart disease
Follow Georgie Silvarole on Twitter: @gsilvarole
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: This high-tech toilet seat can monitor your heart health, detect congestive heart failure