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Harnessing the black hole of health device data

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There is a real opportunity to generate a huge return on the investments that we are making in electronic record keeping and remote monitoring devices.

Alex Stein is a telehealth solutions strategist for IBM, where he works with telehealth solution providers and leading device companies to develop strategies for sharing connected health information.

A growing numbers of individuals are buying electronic monitors or smart phone apps that let them analyze body functions and track their activity. Using all that information smartly could improve health and reduce costs.

But much of that data still exists in silos that can’t easily be connected, or it is trailing off into a black hole of data where it can’t be effectively harnessed because doctors and hospitals aren’t reimbursed for tracking daily glucose readings or blood pressures. They get paid only when the patient comes in with a serious complaint.

We need to change the system so that the increased volume of information will be analyzed and applied to make people healthier. Technology is making it possible to begin a new era of mobile health that keeps track of people where they live.

We need to keep healthy people healthy, and sick people from getting sicker. Smart health devices can have an especially big impact in dealing with chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and arthritis.

There is a real opportunity to generate a huge return on the investments that we are making in electronic record keeping and remote monitoring devices.

The potential for collecting and analyzing vast amounts of information can remake the health care system. We could use that data to tailor treatment plans. Ongoing monitoring could also improve the patient’s quality of life. It could help prevent costly hospital readmissions.

Over the past decade, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been encouraging healthier lifestyles by Americans, not just disease prevention.

numerous products have been developed for mobile monitoring of individual health issues. There are heart monitors, blood-pressure cuffs, glucose monitors, pulse meters, blood-oxygen monitors and electronic pill boxes.  Recently the Continua Alliance, the industry consortium for mobile health devices, certified a software solution that will allow iPhones to be used as connected health monitoring devices.

Today, the amount of medical data and the increased ability to share it, provides an opportunity to really affect health care. We can try to prevent sick people from getting sicker. And, if patients are willing, we can design systems that monitor their activities and encourage them to do more of the right things for their health and fewer of the wrong things.

Cities are also thinking about ways to keep their citizens healthier using mobile health technology. For example, Louisville, which has a higher-than-average rate of asthma, already has air monitoring stations that can detect conditions that might trigger a flare-up of the disease. Notifications are sent to residents if weather or pollution appears to be a problem.

Louisville is also considering ways of predicting and pinpointing asthma triggers that can't necessarily be detected by air quality sensors. Real-time analysis of emergency room information, school absenteeism rates, or anecdotal reports discussed via social media could provide valuable insight. Electronic notifications would be sent if conditions seem favorable for flare-ups, and steps would be taken to correct whatever environmental hazard is causing asthma. An experiment with wireless asthma inhalers that can transmit to doctors the time and location of asthma flareups is also underway.

Most health monitoring can be done automatically by smart electronic systems that understand a patient’s overall condition and know when changing information may indicate danger. Only when numbers get "out of whack" do doctors or nurses need to get involved.

A cell phone with its GPS and accelerometer can provide a wealth of health-related data. Enthusiasts are already buying Nike shoes that track their activity and arm-bands to monitor vital signs. Ford Motor Co. is working with makers of medical apps, such as Pollen.com, to allow allergy sufferers know when opening the windows might trigger a sneezing attack. Sharing the information with health providers and payers could help them better understand individuals’ medical issues.

Already, adults responsible for health care of their parents are pushing them to get "connected" monitoring devices. For example, some find that asking an elderly parent to weigh herself daily on a scale that is connected to the Internet can provide welcome assurance that she is eating enough and following a healthy daily routine.

Individuals will have some tough decisions to make about how closely they are willing to be monitored. Marathon runners may be happy to have their health care providers viewing their training records. But overweight individuals might not. With access to the GPS, the electronic health system could automatically send an encouraging text message whenever it detected the person had walked for 10 minutes or more. But it could also send an admonishing text when it noticed the person idling in the drive-through at a fast-food outlet.

The combination of mobile-health monitoring and the analytical power of integrated computer systems offers an unprecedented chance to boost the health of U.S. citizens. We’re spending a lot to build the infrastructure and make the data available. It’s important that we use successfully it to address the chronic health conditions that can be controlled, monitored and improved.

Mobile health, or mHealth, can help healthy people stay healthy, keep sick people from getting sicker, and help all of us make healthier choices.

Alex Stein is a telehealth solutions strategist for IBM, where he works with telehealth solution providers and leading device companies to develop strategies for sharing connected health information.

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