Big data and the future of healthcare

Healthcare solutions built around smartphones, cloud computing, and big data have the potential to cut through bureaucracy and put power back in the hands of consumers and their doctors.

I recently caught a glimpse of the future of healthcare at an open house at CIC in St. Louis. CIC provides office space, lab facilities and other resources tailored for startups. The 20 participants included three types of businesses: companies developing tools to help healthcare providers diagnose and treat illnesses, companies developing products to help healthcare providers interact more efficiently and effectively with patients, and companies developing healthcare products for consumers.

Several of the startups are leveraging smartphones, cloud computing and big data to create innovative and potentially disruptive solutions. Today’s healthcare consumers often feel overwhelmed when dealing with big insurance companies, large hospitals and mammoth government agencies. Fortunately, smart phones and Internet access have the potential to empower consumers by making healthcare more direct, personal, and timely.

Sparo Labs’ Wing

One intriguing startup is Sparo Labs. The company has developed Wing to help asthma patients manage their condition. Asthma is a chronic lung condition in which the airways become inflamed causing wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. Asthma is a serious and incurable disease that affects approximately 25 million Americans.

Wing enables patients to monitor their asthma daily to better understand and control it. Normally, asthma patients’ lung performance is only assessed during doctor visits (typically months apart) or when they show up at the emergency room. Wing uses the smartphone’s microphone, a hardware add-on and an app to measure FEV1 (how much air the user can exhale in one second) and peak flow (how fast the user exhales). This information can be used to detect and stop asthma attacks before they cause symptoms, to determine how well medications are working and to identify things in the environment that trigger attacks. For example, using the phone’s locating technology, lung performance can be linked to factors including temperature, humidity and pollen count.

By giving patients a tool that they can carry with them, and by linking the app to servers in the cloud, it will become increasingly possible to treat asthma proactively rather than reactively. The app enables patients to track and visualize their lung performance. The more it is used, the more it learns about the individual user’s asthma. A simple “stoplight” signals green, yellow or red to ensure the patient understands their current status. All in all, Wing could lead to a better understanding of what triggers attacks, which therapies are effective at stopping attacks, and how to manage asthma.

Sparo has received $1.25 million in seed funding. However, the firm will need to obtain FDA approval before it can make Wing available for purchase by consumers. Sparo believes that Wing will also prove useful for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis and pulmonary fibrosis, as well as athletes, singers and musicians who play wind instruments.

Ultradia’s Chrona

Another interesting company, Ultradia, has developed a product that transforms an ordinary pillow into a “smart pillow.” The device, Chrona, slips between the pillow and pillow cover with a foam insert and enhances the quality of sleep by emitting different sounds at specific times during the sleep cycle. Chrona also features a haptic alarm that gently vibrates to wake the user without disturbing their partner.

While the precise physiological function of sleep is still studied and debated, it’s clear that the quantity and quality of sleep affects a person’s health and sense of well-being. Sleep disorders can lead to high blood pressure, depression, and other problems. Ultradia points to research that shows acoustic stimulation can be used to enhance certain features of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM). Specifically, low frequency sounds have been found to boost deep sleep, while higher frequency sounds help prepare the user to wake up by promoting light sleep.

The Chrona device connects wirelessly to a smartphone via Bluetooth low energy. The smartphone can be used to check sleep score, change sleep optimization settings and set the haptic alarm. The Chrona device’s built-in accelerometer is used to quantify movement while sleeping. The Chrona app communicates with Ultradia’s cloud-based servers and, in theory, could be used to conduct long-term sleep studies involving large numbers of people. The Chrona unit is powered by a lithium-ion battery that must be recharged about once per week.

Data Dog Health’s Mindset

The third startup using smartphones, the cloud and big data is Data Dog Health. The company’s first app, Mindset, is described as a “toolkit for mental performance.” Mindset monitors stress throughout the day and automatically provides behavioral intervention when needed. Data Dog Health believes that managing stress is essential to helping users maximize performance at work, at play and at home. This can be accomplished by learning to turn distress (bad stress) into eustress (good stress such as experienced while exercising). Bad stress can cause problems including headaches, sleeplessness and irritability. Chronic bad stress is associated with greater susceptibility to viral infections.

Mindset collects data such as heart rate (from an optional wearable heart rate monitor), location (from GPS or another locating technology), motion (using the smartphone’s accelerometer) and time. An algorithm learns to detect when the user is exercising, resting, meditating or stressed out. When the app detects that the user may be stressed, it informs the user and suggest remedies such as relaxation. When the user feels stress coming on, he or she can open the app’s cognitive behavioral therapy tool. Like other smartphone-based health apps, data can brought back to the cloud for aggregation, analysis and visualization.

Big data is a big deal

There are three exciting things about the new breed of smartphone-based health aids. First, they enable consumers to detect health problems in their earliest stages, giving them a chance to take corrective action before symptoms become pronounced. Second, smartphone-based health aids treat the user as a unique individual: They learn what factors cause problems for the user, and what therapies work best for the user in specific situations. And third, smartphone-based health aids give the medical industry the unprecedented ability to observe millions of people day-in and day-out. This should help identify factors that contribute to the development of specific medical conditions, detect the presence of specific medical conditions earlier, and develop more effective treatment and management strategies.

None of these products claim to replace doctors, clinics, and hospitals. But they give consumers tools that they can apply to their daily lives, and give healthcare professionals tools they can use to observe patients outside of the clinic setting.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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