With the federal government aggressively pushing for electronic health records (EHR), 2010 could be the year telehealth technology finally allows doctors to monitor their patients' health wirelessly in real time -- no matter where the patient is.
Of the billions of dollars spent on health care each year, 75% to 80% of it goes for patients with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma and Alzheimer's Disease, according to Dadong Wan, who leads the health innovation program at Accenture Technology Labs.
Monitoring a patient's condition in real time and using the information to develop a more detailed medical history could eliminate the need for some emergency treatment or hospital re-admissions by heading off health problems early.
According to a recent report from Accenture (download PDF), the rise of inexpensive Internet connectivity and smaller, cheaper and "smarter" health electronics should deliver better, more efficient health care.
Wireless health monitoring
The emergence of consumer health electronics such as portable ECG devices, blood pressure monitors or weight scales can allow the seamless capture and sharing of patient information from home, at work or even on the road. Portable ECGs, for instance, weigh just 3.5 ounces and allow outpatients to record electrical heart signals and transmit the results to doctors who can monitor them for trouble down the road. Advances in microprocessors will allow such devices to connect wirelessly with home computers, mobile phones or even remote Internet applications.
Other technologies expected to emerge include bandages or bracelets that monitor and transmit vital signs and patient locations as well as blood sugar monitors that -- after taking their readings -- transmit the data to central databases. Database-enabled tools can then alert doctors and their patients to improve treatment of chronic illnesses.
In addition, patients will soon be able to carry a USB stick or other electronic device that provides access to an online database detailing their medical history, as well as X-rays, recent test results or prescriptions. The patients can then make that information available to hospitals, doctors and emergency services.
For example, the the American Ambulance Association (AAA) announced last month that it will back a virtual medical ID system that allows paramedics to access a patient's health history in an emergency. The medical alert technology would also send a text message to the patient's relatives informing them that medical care is under way.
InvisibleBracelet.org is a Web registry that started in Oklahoma, where the local government made it available as a health benefit for state employees. The ambulance group plans to begin training medical crews on the use of the bracelets later this month.
Personal health records
"I'm a big proponent of finding out as much health information as we can and keeping on top of," said Christine Chang, a Health IT analyst with research firm Ovum. "Personal health records are just starting to be adopted now, so not many people know about them. But in the heat of an accident, they'll be invaluable."