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Bluetooth Sensors on Inhalers Are Preventing Emergency Visits​

New technology is helping patients with COPD and asthma stay on track with their medication

A digital inhaler attachment helps make sure you get the correct dosages.
A digital inhaler attachment helps make sure you get the correct dosages.
IBRAHIM RAYINTAKATH

The news is full of ‘promising’ developments that may ‘one day’ lead to a brighter, healthier future. But for our annual AARP focuses on 'game-changing' medical breakthroughs in vision, heart health and more survey of the latest medical breakthroughs, we decided to focus on game changers that are improving lives today. Each of these astounding new technologies and treatments is available, or will be in the near future, to make your life, and the lives of millions of other Americans, better.

Lisa Hall at the Stearns County Fair in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, on Saturday, July 30, 2022. Photo by Ackerman + Gruber@ackermangruber
Lisa Hall has better control over asthma and COPD.
Ackerman Gruber

Lisa Hall has landed in the emergency room at least once a year since childhood, gasping for breath with flare-ups of severe asthma and, more recently, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). “When you can’t breathe, it’s like a snake squeezing your chest,” she says. ​​

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Last year she began snapping bottle-cap-sized Bluetooth sensors from Propeller Health onto her medication inhalers and was shocked to discover that she wasn’t using some of her drugs correctly. “I wasn’t waiting 15 minutes between two medications for COPD,” says Hall, 53, a grandmother of six from Sauk Centre, Minnesota. “Or I wouldn’t use my inhaler if I couldn’t remember whether I already had.” Now she no longer worries about forgetting doses, because a smartphone app linked to the sensors keeps track for her.​

At first, Hall admits, she thought the sensors might be “just a gimmick.” But she has not needed to visit the emergency room even once since she started using the app to monitor her health, she says. ​

​​Generic Inhaler Drug Combo for Asthma and COPD Approved

​​In March 2022, the FDA approved the first generic-version metered-dose inhaler of the widely prescribed two-drug combo Symbicort, a move expected to make it more affordable. The drug, called Breyna, helps by reducing inflammation and relaxing airways. Its maker, Viatris, is hoping to launch the drug soon, possibly as early as later this year. ​​

Propeller Health’s FDA-cleared sensors join a wave of digital inhaler technology available for people with asthma — which affects about 8 percent of midlife and older adults — and COPD, which impacts the lives of 6 to 11.5 percent of midlife and older adults and is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These at-home tools can help people use their inhalers properly and stick to their drug schedules, says Rajan Merchant, M.D., an asthma, allergy and clinical immunology specialist at Dignity Health Woodland Clinic in Woodland, California. Nearly a third of older adults currently miss doses on their inhaler schedule, and 74 percent use their inhalers improperly, according to studies.

​​By helping people stay on track with controller drugs, digital technology could reduce the need for bigger doses or additional medications, Merchant says. In a 2021 study of adults 40 and older with COPD, researchers found that sensor users needed less rescue medication for flare-ups. A 2018 study of 224 people with asthma found that their emergency room visits and hospital stays dropped with sensor use. ​​

Propeller Health’s sensors, sold directly to consumers without a prescription, can send data on medication use to the person’s doctor. They also track the use of rescue medication, helping alert users to the risk of a future flare-up. Other sensors on the market offer similar tracking and data sharing, but some are available only by prescription (such as CapMedic and Digihalers sold for specific asthma medications by Teva Pharmaceuticals). Some even provide feedback about inhaler technique.

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Most require a smartphone for setup, but Propeller has an option that uses an internet-enabled hub that plugs into a wall outlet to track inhaler use and send data to your computer, doctor and chosen caregivers. Costs range from $80 (free from some health care providers) to about $100 or more. Some options have rechargeable batteries while others, like Propeller’s, don’t (the sensor unit itself must be replaced about once a year). ​

​Hall, meanwhile, likes another app feature: It shows local weather and air quality info, warning her about factors that could trigger a flare-up. At a car show with her grandchildren, the app told her she was using more rescue medication — and that the day was growing increasingly humid. She took a break in an air-conditioned store, then got back to the fun. “I knew I wasn’t necessarily having an attack,” she says. “I just needed to breathe in some less humid air.”​​

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