Wireless IT in Health Care: The Time Is Now?

Wireless medical apps are ready for broad usage and could transform patient care. That's what proponents say, at least.

After years of talk about wireless technologies' potential for widespread use in medical applications, they appear to be ready for a takeoff in adoption within health care organizations.

And some doctors and IT professionals think that wireless has the potential to transform health care in the U.S. by improving patient care and lowering costs.

It remains to be seen whether that will prove to be a sound prediction or yet another case of cockeyed optimism about new technologies. But wireless proponents such as Dr. Eric Topol are in a bullish mood.

Topol, a cardiologist and administrator at Scripps Health in San Diego, is a longtime advocate of wireless technologies and has worked as an adviser and board member at some start-ups. In a keynote speech at last month's International CTIA Wireless 2009 conference in Las Vegas, he pointed to a number of technologies that are either on the market or being used in trials, claiming that they could help improve patient monitoring and reduce errors in administering medications.

"At the same time the economy has hit bottom, we've never had more exciting innovation in wireless medicine," said Topol, who is chief academic officer at Scripps Health and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, a research unit.

In an interview, Topol cited three reasons for the increasing interest in wireless technologies: bandwidth improvements that enable the transmission of images and other rich medical data, an influx of applications from software vendors, and what he called the "grand success" of recent efforts to improve the quality of patient care through wireless projects.

Topol said that over the past two years, he has seen a huge improvement in the personalization of care for his own patients through the use of wireless cardiac-monitoring tools. Sensors attached to a patient's chest can transmit real-time metrics such as heart rhythms, body temperature and blood-oxygen levels, enabling Topol to look at weeks of information when making a diagnosis and devising a treatment plan.

In the past, just two or three days' worth of heart data was typically recorded for each patient, he said, adding that the new technologies provide "a much broader window of the heart rhythm to watch."

During his CTIA keynote, Topol demonstrated several technologies, including an adhesive heart sensor developed by Corventis Inc. that he had placed on his chest. The patch transmitted a variety of data to a monitor that displayed the information as a doctor or medical technician would see it, including a diagram of Topol's body position to show whether he was standing or lying down.

Corventis announced the availability of its "wearable sensors" on April 21. Other wireless cardiac-monitoring vendors include LifeWatch Corp. and CardioNet Inc., where Topol once served on the medical advisory board. (He is currently a member of the board of directors at Triage Wireless Inc., a start-up that is testing a wireless application for monitoring blood pressure and other vital signs.)

Brent Atwood, LifeWatch's chief operating officer, said the use of the company's LifeStar ACT technology has grown from 35,000 patients in January 2007 to about 120,000 now. The technology transmits heart rhythm data via a Bluetooth connection to a cell phone equipped with a specialized interface. For periods of up to 21 days, the phone continuously sends the data to a LifeWatch call center, where software detects any irregularities and alerts cardiac technicians.

LifeWatch is moving all of its cellular connections to the Verizon Wireless network and plans to work with the mobile carrier to expand its support to wireless monitoring of conditions such as diabetes and sleep disorders, Atwood said.

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