New Technology to Monitor Health and Safety
I'm impressed by some new technologies I am seeing and reading about that have the potential to improve the quality of life for people with chronic health problems -- and most particularly for elderly men and women who want to continue to live independently. I'm talking about devices that measure and track data, such as weight and blood pressure, over time, others that nudge people to take medications or perform physical therapy exercises, and yet others that send an alert to a designated recipient if something seems amiss -- for instance, on a morning when the monitored person doesn't get out of bed or there is a precipitous rise or drop in his/her blood pressure. In worst-case scenarios, a call is placed to 911 so that life-saving help comes quickly.
"Chronic health issues are driving this market and the development of these devices," says Susan Ayers Walker, managing director of the SmartSilvers Alliance and the Digital Health Summit at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, the world's largest annual consumer-technology trade show, where such products are typically introduced.
The field itself is new, but the technology isn't, I was told by Jeffrey Kaye, MD, director of the Layton Aging & Alzheimer's Disease Center at Oregon Health & Science University. He said the real breakthroughs are in the adaptations. For example, products like Life Alert -- worn as a pendant or wristwatch -- already enable seniors to call for help if they fall and can't get up or if another emergency occurs. Now a new product from Grandcare uses motion sensors to get the same result without the need to push a button or wear a device. Another product monitors heart failure patients to measure water retention through weight gain. "Now you can instrument a standard bathroom scale to send a signal to a health professional with simple software that charts a patient's weight within certain parameters," he explains.
Here are some of the technologies currently in use or being developed...
Grandcare systems (www.grandcare.com) offers a customizable combination of motion sensors, weight monitoring, prescription reminders, general messages from family and more. The system also gives seniors other reasons to want to interact with it... a TV interface can provide users with updates of photos, local weather, news and more.
For patients taking several medications but who are not sick enough to require full-time care, MedSignals (www.medsignals.com) monitors up to four prescriptions at a time, records when the pills are taken, and sends information to a designated party (a family member, doctor or other caregiver) to monitor use.
GlowCaps (www.rxvitality.com) are special prescription bottle tops that flash and play music when it's time to take a pill... order refills for you... and send a weekly report on use (caps can monitor when and how often they are opened) to physicians and family members.
Elite Care (www.elitecare.com), an assisted-living facility in Oregon, uses monitoring technology to help care for its residents, assuming that the patient has granted permission to be monitored. Behavior and cognitive function are monitored unobtrusively to track changes that can signal decline or the onset of disease.
We're Not There Yet...
These products are available but expensive, and at present, few are covered by insurance. Also, standards for devices still are being developed. Add in concerns about privacy (who gets to see this electronic medical information and what can be done with it)... liability (if the system makes a mistake, who is to blame?)... and physician participation (do doctors have the capability to handle all this data?), and it becomes clear that there are still some kinks to be worked out with these systems.
Even so, their time is surely coming. Major companies, such as Microsoft (www.healthvault.com), Google (www.google.com/health), GE, Philips and Intel, are already hard at work on their own plans and products. Industry standards and design guidelines are being developed (www.continuaalliance.org).
Jeffrey Kaye, professor of neurology and biomedical engineering, director, NIA - Layton Aging & Alzheimer's Disease Center and NIA-ORCATECH -Oregon Center for Aging & Technology, Oregon Health & Science University and Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Portland.
Susan Ayers Walker, managing director, SmartSilvers, www.smartsilvers.com/.
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