Smartphones, tablets and computers link us with friends, relatives and the rest of the world. But they now do a lot more than that. They can remind you to take your pills, monitor your blood pressure and make your hospital stay easier.
"Wireless technology is a game changer when it comes to medical care," says Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. "You'll be able to carry out an online visit with your doctor, which will be a boon for people who find it difficult to get to the doctor's office."
Soon you'll be able to beam a photo of your rash, send your electrocardiogram and forward your blood sugar levels to your doctor whether you're at home, in the office or on vacation. And no need to travel to a distant office only to sit endlessly in the waiting room. Here, seven types of high-tech health gadgets that are either available now or coming your way soon.
1. A glowing reminder
Up to half of all patients who fill prescriptions don't use their medications as prescribed — and forgetting to take a pill is a big reason why. The GlowCap pill-bottle cap flashes orange and beeps when it's time to take your meds. Simultaneously, a companion plug-in reminder light emits an orange glow.
If you fail to take your pill and ignore the GlowCap's nagging for more than two hours, the chip notifies a service center, which sends an automated email, text message or phone call to warn you.
Want to see how well you're doing? You can keep track with weekly and monthly reports that go to you, a relative or your doctor. When it's time for a refill, simply push a button under the cap to be connected to your pharmacist. The GlowPack, a resealable pouch that holds medicines such as blister packs, inhalers and injectables, is now being tested.
The fine print: You currently can order Vitality Inc.'s GlowCap on CVS.com for around $80. The cap and light connect to AT&T's network. You don't need an AT&T account, but there is a monthly fee for the service. A three-month plan costs $24.99 a month, a six-month plan is $19.99 a month, and a 12-month plan lowers the monthly cost to $14.99.
2. Cellphone in a pill bottle
Another gadget, also designed to help people remember to take their meds on time, is AdhereTech's high-tech pill bottle, which uses cellphone technology to measure exactly how many pills (or liquid doses) are in the bottle at any specific time.
When a prescription comes in, a pharmacist supplies information about the drug, dose and timing; the company programs the bottle to glow blue when it's time to take a pill, and red when you've missed it. If you continue to ignore it, you get your choice of a reminder — blinking light, chimes, call, email or text message. If none of these work, the bottle alerts your choice of a relative or doctor to check up on you.
The fine print: The bottles are still undergoing testing and are not on the market, although they may be in about a year. AdhereTech has no plans to sell them directly to consumers. Rather, they want insurance companies, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies to give the $60 bottle to patients when doctors prescribe meds for conditions in which pills should be taken exactly on schedule. The company is betting that hospitals and insurance companies will be willing to shell out money up front to avoid penalties for hospital readmission and the costly consequences of patients who neglect their meds.
Next page: A pill that communicates with your doctor? »
3. Smart pills
Your pill may soon communicate with you and your doctor directly. No glowing lights, no message from the cloud, just the FDA-cleared pill you swallowed not 10 minutes ago.
You'd better believe it. Smart pills work via a tiny sensor the size of a grain of sand that attaches to a pill or capsule. The sensor is powered when it comes in contact with stomach acid; it sends information to a disposable skin patch that acts as a receiver. The patch notes the time the pill was swallowed as well as your heart rate, temperature and physical-activity levels, and relays this information to a smartphone app. From there, you and your doctor or relative, with your permission, can download the data via Bluetooth to check that you're taking your medication correctly.
The fine print: The sensors contain trace amounts of the minerals copper and magnesium, which provide the power. The indigestible parts are passed out of the body in the usual way. Proteus Digital Health, the company behind the sensor-in-a-pill, calls the system Helius. The pills are available through some U.S. hospitals and doctors' offices. If you're interested, ask your doctor about it.
4. Star Trek's earthly counterpart
Imagine a device the size of a hockey puck that will monitor your temperature, respiratory rate, blood oxygen levels, and heart rate and rhythm in just 10 seconds when you hold it to your forehead. The Scanadu Scout can also take your blood pressure without a cuff, with 95 percent accuracy.
Sound like Star Trek's medical tricorder? You're not far off — the Scout's operating system is based on one used for sample analysis on NASA's Mars Curiosity rover. Once the Scout records the data, you'll be able to send it to your smartphone via Bluetooth and track it over time or take it to your doctor to provide a real-time measure of your health. You can also use it to monitor someone else.
The fine print: Scanadu hopes to make the Scout available in late 2014 or early 2015 for $199, after it has been approved by the FDA, a necessary step before the device can be sold commercially. Interested? Log on to Scanadu.com. The company has also developed ScanaFlo, a urine test kit using a disposable paddle, which will provide an early warning if something's not right with your kidneys, liver, urinary tract or metabolism. A smartphone app will guide you through the test procedure and automatically interpret the test results, store them and explain them.
5. Easier hospital stays
A clunky-looking wrist unit about the size of a business card may make hospital life easier for patients and staff alike. Sotera's mobile system, ViSi (Vital Signs), offers around-the-clock monitoring of a patient's heart and pulse rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, breathing rate and oxygen levels in a small wireless package worn on the body.
ViSi gives patients the freedom to get up and move about without being tethered to machines. The device also immediately alerts staff of unfavorable changes in any of the readouts. ViSi's several components include a wrist monitor, chest sensors, a thumb sensor and a wireless blood pressure cuff. Medical staff can get information directly from the wrist monitor or access it from a central nursing station. The data are also available remotely via computer or smartphone.
The fine print: Several hospitals already use ViSi, including Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, Calif., and Intermountain Medical Center and LDS Hospital, both in Utah. Sotera's vision for the future includes monitoring patients after they've been discharged from the hospital.
Next page: Studying a million hearts, one at a time. »
6. Studying a million hearts, one at a time
The Health eHeart Study intends to collect massive amounts of data from 1 million people around the world using sophisticated smartphone apps and sensors, as well as simple Q&As to track blood pressure, heart rate, sleep habits, exercise, diet and more. The collected data will travel wirelessly to the cloud and into the study's data servers. "We'll sift through for information that can accurately predict the development of heart disease in people who don't have it now, and slow its progression in those who do," notes Jeffrey Olgin, M.D., chief of cardiology at the University of California, San Francisco and the study's lead researcher.
For example, one project will look at thousands of people who send in blood pressure readings wirelessly. "We'll know whose pressure is controlled," Olgin says, "and send reminders to those who haven't checked it in a while."
People with poorly controlled blood pressure will be prompted to see a doctor to have their medication adjusted. The project hopes to develop new strategies to help prevent or treat heart disease. "We're trying to create a little health-o-meter or check-engine light for the heart," he adds. "The results of this study will change the way we manage heart risk."
The fine print: Anyone over 18 can sign up for the study. The researchers are looking for both healthy people and those with heart conditions. Participants don't have to come to the study center; they can complete all information and follow-up on a secure website from a computer, tablet or smartphone. The apps and certain study-related devices are free to participants. If you're interested in taking part, you can join at health-eheartstudy.org. San Francisco's nonprofit Salesforce.com Foundation provided initial funding for the project.
7. Bracelets that urge you to exercise
Imagine having a personal health coach to prod you and motivate you to eat well and exercise. Now you can — and you wear it around your wrist. These wearable fitness tracking bracelets let you know how active (or lazy) you are when you're awake, how many calories you chow down each day and how well you sleep at night. The Fitbit Flex and the iHealth Wireless Activity and Sleep Tracker even wake you in the morning with a silent vibrating alarm so your bedmate can continue to snooze while you greet the day.
The fine print: The waterproof Fitbit Flex is yours for around $100. The device keeps track of the number of steps you take, the calories you've burned and how well you sleep at night. Once you download the free app, it syncs with your smartphone or computer so you can check your progress simply by tapping on the bracelet. Battery life ranges from five to seven days before you need to recharge.
A device called iHealth Lab's Wireless Activity and Sleep Tracker comes as a wristband or belt clip and costs around $60. The sweat-, rain- and splash-proof device syncs with an app that allows you to set goals and measure your activity in steps, calories burned, or distance. You can also keep track of diet and sleep. The company that manufactures the iHealth Tracker notes that it has a three-year battery life, so you probably won't have to recharge it.
The Nike+ FuelBand wristband will set you back around $150. It syncs to an iPhone or computer, measures general physical activity and allows you to compare your achievements with those of your friends over Facebook and Twitter. Decide how active you want to be, set your goal, and the band's red-to-green LED display shows your progress throughout the day. The battery holds a charge for about three days. If you decide to invest in any of these devices, shop around before you buy, because prices vary.
Nissa Simon is a freelance health reporter and writer.
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