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Making mobile health technology work

Augmenting organic life with artificial technology is gaining ground in healthcare

Robert Milner Cambridge Consultants

As 3D printing makes the dreams of many Star Trek fan come true and smartphones become literal Hitchhiker's Guides to the Galaxy, the line between science fiction and reality is becoming thinner and thinner.

The augmentation of organic life with artificial technology is a perpetual favourite of both movie-makers and scientists alike, and it's in this field that many people in healthcare are becoming excited.

One of the companies leading the way in this technological field is Cambridge Consultants, a product development company working in the UK and US to create innovative tools to help other firms find new ways to support their work.

Dr Robert Milner (pictured), who is a senior consultant at Cambridge Consultants, discussed the issue at Digitas Health's ThinkDigital 2013 forum last month, which explored how the rise of mobile technology is affecting healthcare and improving patient adherence and outcomes.

Although never quite reaching the realm of science fiction, Dr Milner discussed examples of how low-cost, wireless devices can connect healthcare products with smartphones in very exciting ways. These included the simple but elegant and incredibly useful potential for a pill bottle connected to wireless capabilities to contact a patient's smartphone if they happen to leave the house without taking their medication with them.

But where this technology can truly shine is in chronic diseases, for example in the ability to connect an asthma inhaler with a phone or PC and get data straight from the device and create active patient health records. How this technology can help the huge number of people who suffer from asthma - half of whom are thought to be non-adherent – is still to be seen, although the technology adds a dimension that was previously missing and could bring patients closer to their disease.

This use of data to support better patient outcomes is already being seen in diabetes, according to Dr Milner, where there is a strong community of patients sharing information on how they are handling their own condition. By communicating this data in a public setting, people with diabetes can support other people with the  condition and share tips on how to live more healthily and avoid the many side effects.

But the potential for wireless technology in diabetes doesn't stop at information tracking and sharing, and Dr Milner revealed one of Cambridge Consultants' most exciting projects – the artificial pancreas.

Working with the Institute of Metabolic Science (IMS) at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge Consultants is developing an application that will allow a continuous glucose meter to autonomously communicate with a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth and then link to an insulin pump attached to someone with diabetes.

This would effectively create an artificial pancreas that the company hopes can be worn by people with type 1 diabetes at home without nurse supervision. “It's a really exciting area and it is at the forefront at the adoption of this use of smartphone in the treatment of disease,” Dr Milner told the ThinkDigital audience.

Greater use of the iPhone's ability to connect with devices is likely to increase too, with the addition of Bluetooth Smart to the iPhone 4s. Despite receiving little fanfair as part of the phone's launch, this technology allows smartphone accessories to go beyond Bluetooth headsets, branching out to activity monitors, including Nike's development of a shoe to track running performance that connects directly with an iPhone app.

Whereas this sort of device is likely to be of more interest to consumers, explained Dr Milner, its potential in healthcare is a spectrum that stretches from fitness monitoring devices to ones more directly related to health, such as weight tracking, all the way through to device/app combinations that can help people diagnosed with a disease manage their condition.

And development in the more clinical end of the spectrum is being accelerated by developments in the consumer side, according to Dr Milner.

“People are seeing things coming out the consumer end of the spectrum and they are expecting that to be available for them as a medical product,” he said.

But there are challenges for the tool-makers behind such 'quantified self' products, with Dr Milner explaining that the regulation of apps is becoming a reality, making it harder for new products to come to market.

The fast pace of mobile technology can also be a hindrance as well as a boon. Phones can come out with a new phone operating every six months, meaning there is a constant need for all tools to update and adapt.

On top of this, few patients ever just have one chronic disease, and co-morbidities pose a major challenge in this area. Going forward, any company considering making an app for diabetes, for example, needs to think about how that app interacts with one for another chronic condition, such as depression or cardiovascular problems.

“How do you make that tech work together in way that's safe?” asked Dr Milner of the ThinkDigital audience. “Those are the areas where there is uncertainty and people are looking at how they can solve it,” he concluded.

23rd July 2013

From: Healthcare

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