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How emerging wireless techs are transforming healthcare

Advanced wireless technologies will allow large data to be transferred directly from patient to service provider

By Brad Reed, Network World
September 08, 2009 02:45 PM ET

Network World -  When carriers announce plans to build out faster 4G wireless networks or to ramp up the speeds of their current 3G network, talk typically turns to how it will benefit consumer applications such as mobile gaming or high-definition video streaming.

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But perhaps an even more important aspect of increased mobile data speeds will be their impact on the mobile "telehealth" devices that doctors are increasingly using to keep track of their patients' conditions. A study released this summer by ABI Research projects that there will be approximately 15 million wireless telehealth sensors and devices in use by 2012, or more than double the number of wireless telehealth systems in use today. ABI says that these systems will be used primarily to "monitor and track the status of patients with chronic conditions" so that their providers can detect early warning signs before they become dangerous.

"We're going to see a lot more use of embedded cellular technology in telehealth applications," says ABI analyst Sam Lucero. "What we're looking at is embedding cellular connections into remote card devices to monitor chronic diseases as well as a separate category of telehealth called ambient assisted living where you have sensors in your home or facility to monitor a person's activity."

One organization that has been a strong advocate of adopting remote telehealth systems has been the Center for Connected Health, a Boston-based division of the PartnersHealthcare organization. The center has approximately 2,000 patients in Massachusetts signed up for its programs that include initiatives that use technology to help patients manage their hypertension, diabetes and weight. Essentially, the center's programs work like this: let's say that you have chronic hypertension and that you need to constantly monitor your blood pressure. Under the center's SmartBeat program, you would take your blood pressure twice a week on a digital monitor that connects directly to the Web.

Once you've taken your blood pressure, you would then send it over the Internet to the center's main database. From there, the center collects the data and compares it with data taken from the past few days. The center makes a chart of the data that tracks your progress over the last few days, weeks or months. It then sends you periodic notices telling you whether your blood pressure is improving or deteriorating.

Doug McClure, the corporate manager of technology services for Partners Telemedicine, says that while the system is helping to give healthcare providers a more accurate and up-to-date picture of how their patients are doing, it is inhibited somewhat because most digital medical devices are limited to wireline access that require patients to hook up the device to their computer before sending it out to the center's database. McClure says he expects this system to be improved when more devices either hook onto cellular technologies such as GSM or IP-based technologies such as WiMAX.

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