Using cellphones for healthcare


  • Technology
  • Monday, 26 Jul 2010

WASHINGTON: With nagging text messages or more customised two-way interactions, US researchers are trying to harness the power of cellphones to help fight chronic diseases.

“I call it medical minutes,” says Dr Richard Katz of George Washington University Hospital. He is testing whether inner-city diabetics, an especially hard-to-treat group, might better control their blood sugar — and save a government health programme dollars.

He intends to track their disease using Internet-connected cellphones, provided with reduced monthly rates as long as they regularly comply with the programme.

Consider Tyrone Harvey, 43, who learned he had diabetes seven years ago only after getting so sick he was hospitalised for a week, and who has struggled to lower his blood sugar ever since.

In May, through a study Katz began with Howard University Hospital’s diabetes clinic, Harvey received an Internet-based personal health record that he clicks onto using his cellphone, to record his daily blood sugar measurements.

If Harvey enters a reading higher or lower than pre-set danger thresholds, a text message automatically pings a warning, telling him what to do. And at checkups, doctors will use the personal health record, created by Indiana-based NoMoreClipboard.com, to track all his fluctations and decide what next steps to advise.

“Hopefully you’re paying more attention to your numbers, too,” says Howard’s Dr Gail Nunlee-Bland, whose clinic uses an electronic health record — your official medical history — that can automatically link to NoMoreClipboard’s consumer version and update it with things like medication changes.

The trend is called mobile health or, to use tech-speak, mHealth. If you’re a savvy smartphone user, you’ve probably seen lots of apps that claim to help your health or fitness goals — using your phone like a pedometer or an alarm clock to signal when it is time to take your medicine.

Katz and other researchers are going a step further, scientifically testing whether more personalised cellphone-based programs can link patients’ own care with their doctors’ disease-management efforts in ways that might provide lasting health improvement.

On the other hand, older adults are less likely to use smartphones. So are people who are sicker, with multiple chronic diseases, says Dr Joseph Kvedar, director of the Centre for Connected Health, a division of Boston’s Partners Healthcare.

Do these kinds of technologies work? There’s some short-term evidence although no one knows if people stick with it once the novelty wears off. — AP

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