Initiatives that connect wireless sensors, smartphones, tablets and computers aim to improve care of chronic illnesses.January 24, 2012
One of the best hopes for slowing the increase in medical costs is better management of chronic illnesses to avoid crises and reduce expensive hospitalizations. Technology can help greatly by providing caregivers, medical professionals and care managers tools for monitoring patients' conditions and sending them alerts when things start going wrong.
Wireless health sensors exist in abundance. You can get devices that monitor blood pressure, blood glucose, respiration and other vital signs. Others can tell if you are in bed (and if you are asleep), how often you have used the toilet, and whether you have taken all of your medications. They can communicate wirelessly using a variety of protocols, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or Zigbee.
The problem is that a bunch of sensors, even connected to the network, are just noise until they are tied together into some sort of coherent patient care system. That, until now, has been the province of specialists such as Boston LifeLabs. But now, big networking players, seeing a major business opportunity in networked health care, are getting into the game.
At the recent mHealth Summit in suburban Washington, D.C., both Verizon Wireless and Qualcomm announced their entry into sensor- and smartphone-based wireless patient care systems. Verizon's Digital Healthcare Suite connects sensors, which are supplied by a variety companies, in the home or an assisted-living facility. The sensors are connected to what Verizon Wireless Chief Operating Officer John Stratton describes as "a scalable, cloud-based digital management center," via a small hub device that communicates with the Internet either through landline or wireless connections.
The information collected by the sensors can be transmitted in near real-time to doctors and health care providers, and to insurance companies or other payers. Two-way communication is carried out by video conference, text, chat or email on smartphones, tablets or PCs. The system is designed to support a variety of devices and operating systems.
Verizon hopes that the prospect of lower costs through better care management will encourage insurers to support the system. It is conducting a trial with Wellpoint and is also working with the Veterans Administration, the Cleveland Clinic, Columbia University, Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The Qualcomm 2Net Platform, actually the product of a newly-created subsidiary called Qualcomm Life, is similar except for an even greater focus on wireless. Its hub, which also connects sensors, smartphones, tablets and computers, connects to Qualcomm's data center wirelessly and can operate over any of the major wireless data networks.
These approaches have a great deal of promise for improving the delivery of health care, especially for the chronically ill, but before they can really take off, there are a number of challenges that must be overcome. One is that they must offer much greater security than has typically been the case with distributed wireless communications. This is not only a practical and business reality to overcome the potential concerns of users, but any such system must comply with the stringent privacy requirements of the Health Care Portability and Accountability Act. There are also less obvious regulatory issues. For example, Verizon's Stratton points out that doctors using telemedicine may well find themselves treating patients in states where they are not certified. "We need a licensing framework to remove restrictions across state lines," he said. One advantage of major players such a Verizon and Qualcomm getting into this business is that they may have the clout to overcome the regulatory hurdles.
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