Medical Musings: Get ready for the wireless explosion


Coming to pharmacies this fall is a battery-operated ingestible pill that sends signals to a skin-mounted patch to indicate your response to medications, including heart rate, respiration and temperature.

Proteus Biomedical (Redwood City, CA) and Lloyds Pharmacy of the United Kingdom are launching Helius, a digital health product in the vanguard of a wireless revolution that will create an estimated $4 billion market in the healthcare field.

Housings for home-based sensors will create a major new market for plastics, which don't necessarily need to be medical grade. Also look for a boom in mechatronic devices that incorporate electronic functionality,

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Device transmits blood sugar data wirelessly.

especially in three-dimensional molded shapes.

The Proteus device, which was awarded a U.S. patent last year,   uses the human body as a conductor, but 99% of the market will communicate wirelessly to hospital and ambulatory networks, most commonly via a Wi Fi network.  

iPhone ECG

Cellular telephone networks can also be used to transmit medical data. In one cool idea, a company called AliveCor is commercializing a device that fits on an iPhone and performs an electrocardiogram, archives the data, and then allows transmission of the information through your iPhone.

The device is undergoing trials  at the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center as part of the FDA 510(k) clearance process. The iPhone ECG case and a credit-card-sized iCard ECG device, both of which are wireless, are expected to retail for less than $100.

There was a demo of the device at CES2012 in Las Vegas this month, which was loaded with other indications of where the technology is headed.

Texas Instruments, for example, introduced its lowest cost microcontroller with an integrated LCD controller for consumer medical applications, such as digital thermometers, pedometers, thermostats and portable single alkaline battery devices.  So once those devices are digitized, data can be transmitted wirelessly.

Telcare (Bethesda, MD) showed a device called BGM that transmits blood sugar readings to an FDA-cleared cloud server, from where it is relayed to physicians, other health professionals and authorized relatives of the user. Each time a test is sent, guidance and coaching is transmitted back to the user by displaying it on the screen of the Telcare BGM. Wireless glucose monitors are already on the market from Medtronic, DexCom and others.

The Telcare product was displayed in the Qualcomm Life Pavilion at CES.

Wireless scale

A French company called Withings is selling a $159 WiFi Body Scale that transmits weight and body-mass-index measurements to a secure website or mobile device. Panasonic has a Wi Fi blood pressure monitor.

In a speech at the Consumer Electronics Show, former Apple CEO John Scully commented: "I can't do much about health care reform, but I can do something about health care innovation."  Scully is now an active investor in wireless healthcare technologies.

There are plenty of good reasons why wireless applications are just about to explode in the healthcare field. They all revolve around improved care and reduced costs.

A study by the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department using telephone-based home monitoring showed a 19% reduction in hospital admissions. The cost was $1600 per patient per year compared to $13,121 for use of visiting nurses or $77,745 for nursing home care. Plus the patients can stay at home. How much is that worth?

According to a 2009 study by the New England Healthcare Institute, the use of this same approach for patients with heart conditions could save up to $6.4 billion annually in the USA.

Changes in healthcare payments systems will push these technologies rapidly to the forefront. In the fee-for-service model, healthcare systems bought tons of equipment and needed to amortize its cost with a lot of on-site service.

I live in the Boston area, one of the most-expensive healthcare markets in the world. It seems that an announcement is made every week that shows a new reimbursement approach taking shape.

Global cost plans

Yesterday, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and Children's Hospital Boston announced that Children's and its doctors groups will be given a budget for patients' care rather than charge for each visit and procedure ("fee for service"). That agreement is the tip of the iceberg and is important because for it makes healthcare providers responsible for the costs of healthcare.

"The contract is completely aligned with our aggressive and comprehensive efforts to take costs out of the system, while also improving quality,'' said Children's president Sandra Fenwick. She said the hospital has cut costs by $125 million since 2009.   

The medical market is already a strong market for plastics. And it's going to keep getting stronger.

 

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