Improving public health one app at a time

A new NIH program will use wireless devices to promote better medical care.

Got high blood pressure? There's an app for that.

There's one for diabetes too. Another app that will watch your weight -- and report it to your doctor.

Smart phones, cell phones and home computers are just waiting to launch the next big revolution in health care, said Robert Jarrin, senior director for government affairs at the wireless communications innovator Qualcomm Inc.

Wireless mobile devices can become an ever-present link between patient and doctor.

A blood pressure cuff that connects to your cell phone can transmit blood pressure and heart rate data to your doctor's office daily if necessary. In the same way, a glucometer can transfer blood sugar level readings to a cell phone, which then calls it in to the doctor. Wireless scales work the same way.

The equipment already is available through medical supply dealers, Jarrin said. "But not a lot of people know it exists."

Qualcomm and the National Institutes of Health hope to begin changing that this summer. The company and the agency are planning a weeklong summer institute on mobile health starting June 20 in San Diego.

A "summer institute" is a brief but focused study of a particular issue. In this case, the institute is open to 25 doctoral students who will receive training on current mobile technology and learn how to set up projects to improve health care, according to the NIH.

"We're hoping to bring together a cross section of business leaders and scientists, technology companies and technology engineers" to explore greater use of wireless technology in the everyday delivery of medical care, Jarrin said.

"We can deliver a lot of services remotely," he said. "We have these wonderful devices -- there are 5 billion cell phones in use around the world and 290 million in United States."

One way wireless devices could improve health care is by providing doctors with more frequent updates on their patients' conditions without requiring patients to repeatedly go to doctors' offices, Jarrin said.

More frequent blood pressure or blood sugar reports would provide clearer pictures of health trends than the "snapshots" provided by occasional doctor visits, he said. Delivering those via cell phone and medical applications would save patients the time and cost of an office visit.

Besides delivering regular health status reports to doctors, wireless devices could be used to remind patients to take their medications. "Adherence to medication and to using medical devices is a large aspect of health care," Jarrin said. It's especially important for people who have chronic diseases, which he said afflict nearly half of all Americans.

NIH reports that "at least 50 percent of persons for whom drugs are prescribed fail to receive the full benefit through inadequate adherence." The problem is serious enough that the agency has established an NIH Adherence Research Network to figure out ways to improve patients' compliance with doctors' orders.

Jarrin says mobile communications technology could be the answer.

"What are the three things most people carry? Keys, money and a cell phone. Arguably, money and keys will start to disappear, leaving the cell phone," he said. The challenge is to get patients and doctors to think of mobile communications technology as a medical tool, he said.

That is NIH's goal too. The agency "is committed to harnessing the power and reach of mobile technologies to extend healthy life and to reduce the burden of illness and disability," said Dr. Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

Mobile communications technology and medical applications promise to cut costs, reduce errors, and eliminate geographical and economic disparities, Pettigrew said in an announcement of the summer institute.

One obstacle to greater adoption is that Medicare and Medicaid reimburses doctors for delivering care via telecommunications technologies only if it is done in areas of medical shortage, or in extremely rural areas, Jarrin said.

More doctors would be inclined to use the technology if there were incentives to do so, he said.

Interested students can register for the summer institute through March 3.