With New Electronic Health-care Devices, the Doctor Might Not Need to See You Now

Columbus Dispatch (via San Jose Mercury News)

It’s hard to find a better example of how technology is revolutionizing patient care than the tiny edible sensor that Proteus Biomedical of Redwood City, Calif., plans to begin selling this fall in the United Kingdom.

When the grain-of-sand-size sensor is integrated into a drug tablet or capsule and activated by stomach fluid, it signals when the medicine was taken to a patch on the patient’s body. Then the patch relays the information along with the person’s heart rate and other medical details to a caregiver’s phone — all without a visit to the doctor.

“We’re seeing an enormous surge in demand for health services across the globe,” said Proteus CEO Andrew Thompson, noting that he plans to offer a similar product in the United States. To meet that need inexpensively, he added, “health care must digitize. It must move into the 21st century.”

Some experts predict that in the near future, tens of millions of Americans will be tethered to gadgets that will automatically send their vital signs to medical professionals, relatives and concerned friends.The technology already has generated an industry worth well over $1 billion a year. And despite concerns that the data transmitted by patients could overwhelm doctors and be spied on by hackers, the trend is widely expected to transform the relationship between patients and physicians.

Eric Nagel, a 57-year-old semiconductor analyst who lives in Los Gatos, Calif., generally takes his blood pressure readings in the morning with a monitor made by iHealth of Mountain View, Calif. The device sends the data in an easy-to-understand form to his iPhone, and every few weeks, he emails the data to his doctor, who became concerned about Nagel’s high blood pressure a year ago.

“She wanted to put me on medicine,” Nagel said. But he worried about the possible side effects and chose instead to exercise more and improve his diet.

“It’s been a very positive thing for me,” he said. “I’ve been able to get my blood pressure down. The device was able to show me what changes I was making that were positive and which ones weren’t.”

Lots of patients could benefit by sharing their medical data more regularly with a physician, said Dr. Joseph Smith of the West Wireless Health Institute in La Jolla, Calif., which seeks to lower health-care costs in part through new innovations.

“The notion that your needs for health care are best met by seeing a doctor a couple times a year, when you live every day, is probably wrong,” he said. “There is obvious value in knowing more.”

Many people are reaching the same conclusion.

Of 2,000 consumers surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2010, 40 percent said they would buy a device and pay a monthly fee to automatically send their heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and weight data to their doctors. And Connecticut research firm Nerac estimates that by 2020, “at least 160 million Americans will be monitored and treated remotely for at least one chronic condition.”

The technology also has aroused some concerns.

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