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Information Technology Offers a Bright Spot in Health Care

by Sam McNerney

If there is one bright spot in health care in the United States it is new information technology including social media. Consider the medical app industry, currently valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars with some 40,000 apps available for download in the iTunes store.

This boom is thanks to entrepreneurs from various backgrounds who are combining medical research with the latest developments from the digital world to create new and promising applications of medical information technology. “It’s a fascinating time to be in health care in Silicon Valley and elsewhere,” as one person I spoke with put it.

The first generation of medical apps was novel but relatively trivial. They monitored caffeine intake, tracked calories and gave helpful exercise tips. Today a more sophisticated generation of apps is emerging.

One of them is Cardiio, which, unlike most medical apps, requires no connection to the user’s body. Here’s how it works. Every time your heart beats, the blood volume in your face increases. Higher blood volume absorbs more light and, therefore, reflects less light. The nifty software in Cardiio uses the camera on your device to detect these very small changes that are usually invisible to the human eye. It then uses the data to calculate how many beats per minute your heart is ticking at. Based on research conducted in 2010, the Cardiio team claims that the app is accurate to about 3 bpm. Not bad. 

The brains behind the operation are a team of “engineers, Ph.D. scientists, designers and technology lovers from Harvard and MIT.” I managed to speak with founder Ming-Zher Poh. “The idea for Cardiio grew out of my research in the late 2000s that focused on developing non-intrusive methods for measuring physiological signals,” Poh explained.

His key insight was combining his research with technology that detected facial expression. After finishing a successful prototype and completing his PhD, his team landed at Rock Health – an incubator for digital health startups - in San Francisco. He launched Cardiio last August.

The reception has been positive so far. Cardiio has been featured in Fast Company, Yahoo, ABC News, PSFK.com and other outlets. The question is: What is the future of Cardiio? Poh informed me that the next steps are figuring out how to obtain more information from the body (not just the rate at which the heart beats), including blood pressure, temperature and respiration data, all without actually making contact with the body. Accomplishing these projects will take more time and research but the technology is not in the distant future.

A bright future?

The larger question is where the entire industry is headed. A promising path is developing applications that help control or prevent chronic conditions like diabetes. Consider Omada Health, (a small group of technology gurus and entrepreneurs. “Many of the best products out there are not very evidence based,” co-founder and CEO Sean Duffy told Txchnologist. “We felt that you could build a company around combining the best evidence with the best products.”

With this in mind, Duffy and his team in December launched Prevent, an online platform aimed at reducing the chance of acquiring type 2 diabetes. The concept stems from a study published in 2002, which demonstrated that subjects reduced the risk of acquiring diabetes with proper lifestyle changes and assistance from a coach (as opposed to simply taking drugs). Prevent users begin by setting up a profile online. Next they receive a wireless scale and online tools they use to track their progress. Finally, they are placed in groups of 12 overseen by a health coach. Over the course of 16 weeks the online ecosystem tracks progress that ensures users are headed in the right direction. Ideally, users lose weight and adopt better lifestyles. Though Prevent has only existed for two months, Duffy is optimistic about its future.  

Quantifying life and wellness

Prevent is not alone. The Wisconsin-based company Asthmapolis created a small device that attaches to an inhaler and syncs with a smartphone. The device helps users identify the time and location they use their inhaler, which provides valuable data for health-care professionals. Recovery Record is an app aimed at curbing eating disorders that uses a similar format as Prevent and WellDoc, another app and online platform that targets a number of chronic diseases.

Do these new ventures represent the next wave of health care information technology?

The health-care system is moving in a direction where consumers are taking more personal responsibility for their health by taking advantage of platforms that “quantify” their lives. As one Wired.com article from 2009 put it:

We can tweet what we eat into a database and subscribe to Web services that track our finances. There are sites and programs for monitoring mood, pain, blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate, cognitive alacrity, menstruation, and prayers. Even sleep—a challenge to self-track, obviously, since you’re unconscious—is yielding to the skill of the widget maker.

It makes sense, then, that the ingenuity of the aforementioned technologies rests in their customer-centric products. They are easy to access - virtually anyone with an Internet connection can use them – and easy to navigate, making them more pleasant than the usual alternatives. It will take time to develop the data required to determine how effective they will be, but if there is an optimistic area in health care, these technologies and the bright young entrepreneurs like Poh and Duffy behind them might be it.

Top Image: Woman scanning bottle with cell phone in pharmacy via Shutterstock.

Sam McNerney is a science writer who focuses on cognitive science. His writing has appeared on ScientificAmerican.com, BBC Focus and Huffingtonpost.com. He maintains the column “The Cognitive Philosopher” at CreativityPost.com.

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