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Health IT: When Your Bed Tracks Your Blood Sugar

The Economist has a nice story today on how the powerful convergence of wireless technology, social networking and medicine is transforming health care in both rich countries and poor:

The hope is that nimble new technologies, from smart-phones to EHRs to health-monitoring devices, will empower patients and doctors, and thus improve outcomes while cutting costs. The near ubiquity of mobile phones is the chief reason to think this optimistic scenario may come true. Patients with fancy smart-phones can certainly benefit from interactive “wellness” applications that track diet, exercise and vital signs. Apple’s App Store, for example, offers thousands of health-related applications. Jitterbug, an American mobile operator that offers easy-to-use phones for the elderly, recently added more health services; rival mobile carriers are doing much the same.

But Carolyn Buck-Luce of Ernst & Young, a consultancy, points out that “mHealth” is transforming health care in poor countries as well as rich ones. Medicall Home, a Mexican outfit that provides medical consultations by mobile, already has millions of customers. Paul Meyer of Voxiva, an American technology firm that has set up mHealth systems in Rwanda and Peru, among other places, says that such schemes have been so successful in the developing world that they are now being adopted in the rich world too. His firm has helped the American government with its recent launch of Text4Baby, a public-health campaign to educate pregnant mothers (they receive free text messages with medical advice) that will soon become the biggest such effort in the world.

What is more, mobile phones are but one part of a broader wireless trend in health care that McKinsey, a consultancy, estimates may soon be worth up to $60 billion globally. Many companies are coming up with “home health” devices embedded with wireless technology. Some are overtly clinical in nature: Medtronic, a devices giant, is developing a bedside monitor that wirelessly tracks the blood sugar levels in diabetic children sleeping nearby. GE has come up with “body sensor networks”, tiny wireless devices that track the vital signs of those who wear them.

The most successful gadgets may be, as Eric Dishman of Intel puts it, “surreptitious”. His firm, a big chipmaker, is investing in devices to track the health of the elderly, such as “magic carpets” that sense erratic movements and thus can predict a fall. Continua, an industry coalition, is developing shared standards so that blood-pressure monitors and scales can wirelessly transfer readings to doctors’ offices or personal EHR services like Google Health.

This program aired on April 9, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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