How Smartphones Could Lead the Digital Healthcare Revolution

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    NEWSLETTERS

    You're fat. Well, not fat. Let's say overweight. And you're on a strict diet under a doctor's supervision.

    Or, you have allergies, and you have to be careful about your environment and what you eat.

    Or, you have diabetes, and you have to be careful about your blood sugar.

    Or, you're pregnant, and you want make sure everything with your child is copacetic.

    Or, you have a heart condition, and you have to be careful about stress and heart rate.

    Or, you or perhaps an aging parent has a chronic condition, requires ambulatory care or is in out-patient care or recovery, all requiring constant monitoring.

    What's the solution to monitor, report and, perhaps, even treat any and all of these conditions? Your smart phone. That'd be one smart smartphone, right? Well, it's not that smart right now, but it will be. Read on to find out how.

    In the coming months, you'll be hearing a lot about something called "mHealth," which literally could be the most life-altering technological leap in our lives.

    mHealth is short for "mobile health." mHealth is not one single technology — it's not even a new technology. mHealth is an ecosystem and takes advantage of a lot of existing, mature technology — hardware, software, local wireless communications and telecommunications infrastructure. Enough folks now know about, own and have access to all the varying pieces to the point where a reliable multi-point system can be built — no, is being built. Think of mHealth as your own, personal OnStar system, only your body is the car.

    I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC

    To start with, mHealth is bio-sensors we'll wear. Nothing obvious, necessarily. These bio-sensors could be built into stuff you already wear — eye glasses, belt buckles, hats, watches, bras, clothing, shoes, jewelry, whatever.

    These bio-sensors will constantly measure and track particular bio-medical conditions such as temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, weight, breathing, blood sugar, brain waves, et al, or perhaps a sensor surgically implanted, such as an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). There also may be sensors to sense for dangerous conditions such as carbon monoxide or allergens.

    These sensors also will include some sort of wireless communication — Bluetooth or perhaps some new unlicensed band — to create what developers are calling a BAN, or Body Area Network. Readings are constantly transmitted wirelessly from these bio-sensors to your smartphone. Your smartphone stores these readings in an app, and transmits the biodata over the cell network to a remote computer, and/or monitoring system, and/or primary caregiver, and/or doctor.

    Should your bio-signs show any sign of irregularity or abnormality, all the right people will be alerted. You may even get a text message on your phone to tell you to slow down, take some medication or do something to alleviate the symptoms.

    You may not even be sick at all. But bio-sensors may be able to report all your bio-signs to your doctor in lieu of an in-office physical, and add data to your cloud-stored electronic health records.

    WHAT'S A 'MEDICAL DEVICE'?

    One thing is stopping pioneering entrepreneurial companies and established technology giants companies from leaping into mHealth product development: the law.

    As usual, technology has raced ahead of what the law is capable of adjudicating, specifically, defining what a medical device is. The last time the government legally defined what could be legally sold as a medical device was 1938.

    In the case of mHealth, several legal definitions have to be determined, including what mHealth hardware and software the FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration) will regulate and, if regulated, in what device classification will the FDA place them, specifically, whether a given device requires some sort of premarket clearance or approval from the FDA.

    Without these firm definitions and guidelines, no one wants to invest the millions it will take to create the products. An organization called the mHealth Regulatory Coalition, is working with the FDA to establish these guidelines. According to the MRC's general counsel, Bradley Thompson, guidelines ought to be in place by mid-2011.

    INITIAL MHEALTH PRODUCTS

    Not everyone is waiting for the FDA. Some manufacturers such as A & D Medical, Independa and Ant already are creating sensor products and monitoring systems. An mHealth organization called Continua Health Alliance, comprised of a number of mHealth companies, offer product guidelines and certification, sort of the mHealth seal of approval.

    In addition, AT&T researchers are collaborating with hospital and university partners on a number of mHealth devices such as "smart slippers." Built with networked insoles, the slippers wirelessly monitor a patient's gait to identify pressure signatures. Capturing changes in acceleration and pressure measurements, the sensors could alert caregivers to respond quickly to falls, or possibly even help prevent them.

    Great Call, which makes the simple senior-centric Jitterbug cellphone, will be announcing details on some cell-based mHealth systems next week at CES including Live Nurse and a mobile personal emergency assistance platform.

    While building the mHealth system will be good for you and the companies making the products, mHealth could be good for the economy. Everyone one on all sides of the Obama health care debate agrees that streamlining records would save millions, and building an mHealth ecosystem and cloud electronic records could go a long way toward that record streamlining.

    If you're interested in monitoring mHealth monitors, sensors, et al, check out Mobile Health News — on your smart phone's browser, of course.

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