Doctor in the phone: healthcare for the 21st century

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With an ageing population, providing healthcare efficiently is one of the biggest challenges facing society. We know that using sensors to monitor patients and provide detailed, regular data on their condition will help, but some recent developments suggest that we're getting closer to using this technology for real gains.

Researchers at Belgian nanotechnology lab Imec, in conjunction with the Netherlands-based Holst Centre, have developed a wireless communication system that enables EKG sensors on the body to communicate with a smart phone, creating what they call a body-area network (BAN). The smartphone picks up signals measuring data such as brain activity, muscle activity and cardiac performance. We also wrote about this innovation in an earlier Orange Business Live! blog on wearable computing.  

These scientists are not the only ones experimenting with such hyper-localised sensor networks. BodyMedia, a company founded in 1999 by four Carnegie Mellon University scientists, recently launched a smartphone-enabled version of its body monitoring system.

BodyMedia users wear an armband that constantly measures variables contributing to calorific exertion. The system also enables users to enter their food intake, producing a web-based report on their overall activity and calories burned per day, enabling them to plan their way to weight loss. This system was previously used with a proprietary wristwatch display, but a new Bluetooth-enabled armband and smartphone app makes it possible for users to monitor their health using their own commodity technology.

Philips DirectLife takes a similar approach, but instead of using a smartphone, it uses a proprietary activity monitor that stays with the user all day, connecting to a home computer via a USB port, and uploading data to the web for an online report. Philips markets the solution as an online coaching service, motivating the user to improve their baseline activity over a four month period to get them healthier.

And then, there are more specialized solutions designed for particular healthcare scenarios. There's the solution developed by Orange Business Services and Sorin, that helps monitor cardiac activity, which has been covered extensively in Orange Business Live! Others include HealthSense, which provides a service called eNeighbor Telehealth. A personal sensor monitors various aspects of a patient's health. Blood pressure, weight scales, pulse oximeters, and networked cameras can all be connected to an in-home system that enables physicians to remotely monitor a person's health in the home. This solution is being marketed for outpatient management, which could go a long way towards reducing healthcare costs by freeing up hospital beds, while enabling elderly patients to be more comfortable as they recover in their familiar surroundings.

These devices run the gamut of healthcare solutions, addressing both the lifestyle health and specialist markets. Taken together, though, they represent a promising start in network-powered healthcare. As cloud-based healthcare services mature, the possibilities for this exciting new segment opens up. Companies such as Microsoft are already offering centralized storage of consumer-owned healthcare records, which can be accessed by pharmacies and healthcare clinics. Using sensors to complement these records with highly-detailed data on personal activity and vital signs could make our healthcare systems smarter than ever.

Anthony Plewes

After a Masters in Computer Science, I decided that I preferred writing about IT rather than programming. My 20-year writing career has taken me to Hong Kong and London where I've edited and written for IT, business and electronics publications. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Stewart Baines where I continue to write about a range of topics such as unified communications, cloud computing and enterprise applications.