Medicine requires intimate face-to-face interactions between doctors and patients, and it will probably never change. But doctors and patients also need data. However, getting the data out of all of the devices that gather health data can be a logistical nightmare.
First off , there are too many devices out there that measure everything from blood pressure and blood chemistry to brain wave patterns. Now fortunes are being made by getting all of these myriad devices to share their data efficiently and, ideally, wirelessly.
Th e usefulness of wireless medical diagnostics became crystal clear to my dad a few years ago when he was diagnosed with type II diabetes. He had to become his own data collector. Every single morning, he uses a handheld device that pricks a tiny bead of blood from his finger, measures the concentration of sugarbound hemoglobin, and reports a number on its LCD screen. “It’s supposed to be around 100 mg/dL,” he says. “But it’s so sensitive to diet and exercise. If I have a big pasta dinner, it can be 160.If I have a light dinner the night before and go for a walk in the morning, it can come in under 60 and the thing goes beep! ‘Go eat something, stupid!’”
My dad dutifully jots down all these numbers with a pencil in a paper logbook. He’s supposed to look out for when his glucose starts hitting 200. Then it’s time to readjust his medicine and, eventually, consider a new insulin delivery regimen. Finding trends in the data could be useful. It might give an early warning or reveal factors that tend to send his blood glucose out of whack. But to spot trends, someone would have to transcribe all the data into a computer and analyze it.
His blood glucose did eventually creep dangerously high. He visited his doctor after a year, bringing his logbook and glucose meter with him. My dad was in for a shock. “The doc plugged in the meter and downloaded every single reading it had ever taken. All the data was just sitting in there!”
The medical diagnostics industry is aware of this problem and is finally stepping up. One strategy is to use the highpower computers that so many people carry around in their pockets every day. An iPhone can not only analyze blood glucose data and give patients timely feedback and warnings, but it can share that data in real time with a doctor.
A company called Glooko is leading this charge. There are dozens of different glucose meters, each with slightly different outputs and data formats. Glooko solved the connection problem with a mini-stereo jack and a wireless infrared sensor—similar to a TV remote—that shuttles the data directly into an iPhone. These two methods cover almost every glucose meter currently in use. And it converts all those different data into a single format and stores it on their own servers.
Another strategy is to cut out the middleman by enabling devices to do the talking themselves. Th e FDA recently approved the first Bluetooth glucose meter by Life Scan. Bluetooth uses high-frequency radio waves to share data over short distances. Th e downside is that wireless meters are sure to be far more expensive than the old-fashioned ones for the foreseeable future, leaving companies like Glooko to bridge the gap.
The catchphrase for all this is mobile health, and diabetes isn’t the end of it. One of the biggest drains on heart patients, both financial and psychological, is having to spend their days in hospitals. CardioDiagnostics has created a wearable heart meter that sends data wirelessly like a cell phone straight to the doctor. This will inevitably be expanded to other diagnostics, allowing all kinds of patients to carry on with their lives, visiting hospitals only when needed.
Ideally, whatever devices are collecting your health data should automatically send their data into the Cloud. Whenever possible, health problems should be predicted before they become a crisis. And patients should get realtime feedback to help them improve their lifestyles.
Of course, the patient still has to use the gadget. For his part, my dad says he won’t be springing for a wireless glucose meter any time soon. “I just don’t think it’s worth it for me yet,” he says. “I can see this being very useful later when my pancreas poops out. But not yet.”