The new healthcare: Smart band aids, digital pills, wrist bands

The following story, by Dr. Eric Topol of the non-profit West Wireless Health Institute, is part of a series of posts about cutting-edge areas of innovation. The series is sponsored by Microsoft. Microsoft authors will participate, as will VentureBeat writers and outside experts.

corventis_bandageIn the past decade, we’ve experienced the digitization of our music and our books; the next logical step is to take our health care digital. My friend Don Jones, who leads Qualcomm’s health care effort, calls it the “Kindelization” of health care. In the same way digital entertainment and communication devices have changed the way we entertain ourselves, digital wireless devices will change the way we take care of ourselves. In the not too distant future, we will be able to rely on disposable, “smart band aids” to transmit data to our smart phone, telling us in real time what our heart rate and rhythm is, how many calories we’ve taken in and expended that day, and how many hours of high quality sleep (REM) we had the night before.

In contrast to the crisis we’re facing in health care access and economics, we are, at the same time, experiencing the most exciting phase of innovations in medicine to date. From my vantage point, as a cardiologist, the transformation that is taking place is exceptionally striking. We have the opportunity to reset, revamp and ultimately transform health care, which is the most challenging area of our culture to change.

This morphing of medicine centers on an unprecedented surge of technological and medical innovation. We have the tools to take full advantage of the genomics gold rush and to harness the power of the hundreds of ingenious wireless sensors in development. These non-invasive, wearable sensors, in the form of disposable bandages and pills, transform the human body into an information gateway. Vital signs and wellness information can be sent real-time to the people that need it most, whether it goes to a medical center, physician or back to the individual or their caregiver

In March this year, a non-profit research and educational organization — West Wireless Health Institute, where I serve as chief medical officer — was launched to identify, test and accelerate the use of wireless gadgets, sensors, and systems, and then take them through clinical validation as well as to identify unmet medical needs and find wireless solutions to address them.

remotemonitoringWireless medicine spans many different dimensions. It is not focused on a single disease or condition. It reaches through the entire continuum of care, across the ages, from preemies to seniors, the full spectrum of diseases and health, and across the world. Many solutions exist today or are in the pipeline. A device from Airstrip helps monitor high-risk pregnancies and deliveries. Proteus pills can track medication compliance. Corventis bandages (pictured above) can relay cardiac data in real time, including a continuous electrocardiogram, fluid status, position, activity, temperature, and respiratory rate. Another highlight is a wireless device from Triage Wireless. It measures and monitors blood pressure, without the need for an arm cuff, continuously through a simple device you can wear on your wrist. It also measures all critical vital signs, including heart rate, oximetry, respiratory rate and temperature.

Think about sleep disorders. Sleep disorders such as apnea affect more than 15 million Americans and likely many millions suffer from the disease but have not been diagnosed due to the expensive, complex monitoring required. Today these individuals must go to a sleep lab and spend the night with multiple wires and leads connected to their head in an environment that is far from the ideal place to actually fall asleep. This scenario is quickly going to be a thing of the past. Companies like Zeo and NeuroVigil are developing solutions that will enable people to stay at home and go to sleep with a single contact point on their head, a tiny sensor patch, which measures the brain and can be monitored by a specialist from afar.

Powerful, global connectivity is at the core of this revolution. Connected devices will provide truly individualized medicine, keeping people in their own homes and out of the hospital, enabling people to remain healthy longer and to help avoid the enormous costs of care. Consumers are ready to embrace solutions, anchored by their tightly bound mobile phones, that not only help provide unique data to track particular conditions, but prevent them from getting sick in the first place. Consider the 1.2 million runners who use the Nike+ sensor in their shoe to track how many miles they’ve run and calories they’ve burned.

Consumers are ready and the possibilities are endless. Our biggest need is true primary prevention of diseases, and this is where the breakneck pace of genomic discoveries and wireless medicine sensors will converge and potentiate individualized medicine. Never before could we track such important data on patient physiology continuously and have knowledge of the underlying individual’s biology via genomics. Being able to prevent heart arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia is one such example. Others include using genomic susceptibility for cancer or obesity to make early use of wireless sensors to be way ahead of ever developing such conditions.

eric_topolThe momentum is extraordinary, and I hope we’ll see this wave of innovation result in sensors, gadgets, and devices that are tested and proven to reduce healthcare costs and produce better outcomes for patients and consumers

Dr. Eric J. Topol is chief academic officer of Scripps Health, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute (STSI), and chief medical officer of the West Wireless Health Institute.

Also see previous stories in our Conversations on Innovation series:

Not everyone’s ready for the cloud: 8 roadblocks software developers face
Is it time for business to embrace the cloud?
Speech, touchscreen — been there, done that. What’s the user interface of tomorrow?
How phones emerged as main computing devices, and why user interface will improve
Put your finger on it: The future of interactive technology
“Touch” technology for the desktop finally taking off