The development of new technologies to improve health care has always been a central focus of medical researchers and of private firms that see the promise of profit in new devices. But in a twist on typical research and development in the medical industry, new technologies designed for fitness fanatics are making their way into the realm of traditional health care.
If at this moment you’re wearing an activity tracker on your wrist, belt or elsewhere, you’re already using technology that’s starting to change how doctors respond to patients who have chronic diseases and life-threatening conditions – though you likely didn’t purchase it for that purpose.
Initially developed to appeal to people of all ages who wish to achieve or maintain a high level of physical fitness, wearable trackers known by names such as Fitbit, Pebble and Jawbone deliver real-time information to the wearer about his or her daily physical activity.
Sensors in the devices “read” body movements to report on the number of steps taken during a given period or the number of stairs climbed, distance walked and calories burned.
Some trackers monitor heart rate, or even the length and quality of a wearer’s sleep, and can be programmed to provide feedback on eating patterns and diet choices.
When paired with a smartphone or computer, the trackers can deliver detailed results that enable comparisons and progress reports over time.
With some 70 million wearable trackers sold around the globe last year, it’s clear that the devices have moved into the mainstream. Of greater interest to the medical community, however, is the potential of these devices and similar technology to improve the treatment of heart disease, diabetes and other conditions that are among the nation’s biggest killers.
Ochsner Health System is among dozens of institutions around the country that are pioneering the use of consumer-friendly tracking devices to increase and improve patient monitoring and wirelessly send data about a patient’s condition directly to a clinic or hospital.
Ochsner recently began testing Apple HealthKit, a service developed by technology giant Apple Inc. that enables doctors to remotely monitor patients who suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, and integrate the data into their medical records.
Dr. Richard Milani, who oversees the pilot program at Ochsner, says it targets high-risk patients, such as those who have experienced congestive heart failure. These patients must track their weight on a daily basis and be on watch for any excessive fluid build-up in their body.
By using Apple HealthKit and a scale designed to integrate with the system, the patient’s daily weigh-in results go directly to Ochsner, where the system alerts a case manager to a meaningful change so that a physician or nurse can contact the individual and advise quick action.
Milani says that receiving more frequent information from the patient enables a doctor to “course-correct” the treatment for a better outcome.
Similarly, a patient using a blood pressure cuff that integrates with the system can take regular pressure and heart rate readings at home, and the data can go directly to the clinic.
Milani says the technology is helping to reduce hospital readmissions by enabling doctors to resolve issues at an early stage. “If we can collect this data more frequently, we can reduce your chance of a heart attack, stroke or even dying,” he says.
Federal health care initiatives, along with the Affordable Care Act, have helped speed the adoption of wireless data tracking by offering providers rewards for implementing the technology. Medicare, for instance, makes monthly payments to care providers for “non-face-to-face” care coordination services for patients who have two or more chronic conditions.
Meanwhile, some software developers see this integration of tracking technology into traditional health care as a wide-open opportunity. One independent developer that’s focused in this area is a health and wellness platform called GetHealthy.
Local entrepreneur Blaine Lindsey, who founded GetHealthy Inc., says doctors can use the software to communicate with patients and follow important metrics such as blood pressure, heart rate and glucose readings.
“The doctor decides what data is meaningful for a specific patient and then uses GetHealthy to collect that data,” he says.
Lindsey believes his software can be a boon to doctors, particularly primary care providers, who are receiving declining reimbursements for many services from both private and public insurers.
Noting that people who have chronic illnesses typically make frequent visits to their doctor, Lindsey says wireless monitoring of their condition can reduce a doctor’s time spent on each case and help cut the provider’s costs.
“If you have a chronic health condition, it pays the doctor to be proactive with your health,” he says.
Eventually, wearable activity trackers – including new smart watches that are just beginning to become popular – may link directly into such software platforms and help produce a more complete picture of a person’s health in his or her medical record.
Doctors say that when systems get to that point, a new challenge will be to develop technology that can sort through the data and isolate what’s most important.
Trends in trackers
A national survey conducted last fall by business technology consultant TechnologyAdvice
25.1 percent of adults use either a fitness tracker or smart phone app to track their health, weight or exercise;
48.2 percent of non-tracking adults would use a fitness tracking device provided by their physician;
57.1 percent would be more likely to use a fitness tracking device if it resulted in lower health insurance premiums;
44.2 percent would use such a device if it would enable better care by