May 9, 2007 Turning the health-care model upside down, a small Australian company is working on bluetooth technology that logs and transmits medical observation data to a central network through a mobile phone - so your doctor can call YOU when a problem is developing. Alive's bluetooth technology is already proving useful in the recovery of cardiac outpatients and the diagnosis of sleep apnea - and a range of products in development aim to make advancements in health monitoring for diabetics, mountaineers and athletes in training.
The core of the Alive technology is a fairly simple idea - bluetooth enabled health monitoring devices such as heart rate & activity monitors, ECGs, blood oximeters and blood glucose meters that communicate with software on your mobile phone to log and upload information to a central internet server.
The information can be uploaded in real-time over a GPRS mobile data connection if constant monitoring is required - such as in the case of cardiac arrest patients who are beginning to use exercise as part of their recovery - or saved onboard the device on an SD card to be batch uploaded at a convenient time if the data isn't so urgent.
This means that vital health information can be relayed to medical professionals without the need to visit a hospital, either constantly, daily or as needed. It's a major step forward in convenience for people who need various body metrics monitored, and could serve to relieve stress on overcrowded health systems.
Cardio Mobile program
The Alive Heart and Activity Monitor is already at work. "We have a program running with the Queensland University of Technology at the moment," explains Alive Technologies CEO Bruce Satchwell, " it's called the Cardio Mobile Project, based around cardio rehabilitation. Patients who have had some kind of heart problem - traditionally they'd come in to a hospital and do some exercises in the hospital, all hooked up to monitoring equipment.
"With cardio mobile they're able to have their ECG output monitored remotely through the internet as they exercise. In the worst case you can call an ambulance I guess... Although that never happens. People who have had a heart problem are sometimes terrified of exercise, they think it will bring on another heart condition and they don't exercise - so things just get worse. With proper exercise you can take these probems on. Cardio Mobile lets people get on with their lives and exercise in their own time, out of hospital, in the knowledge that their doctor can monitor them for problems."
Sleep apnea diagnosis
Sleep apnea is an increasingly common condition in which individuals pause from breathing several times a night. This leads to sleep disruption, snoring and all the symptoms you'd expect if you weren't getting quality sleep - everything from irritability and lack of concentration to high blood pressure and eventually heart problems. It's a serious and debilitating condition that can only be diagnosed while the patient is asleep.
Traditionally, diagnosis and monitoring of sleep apnea has required patients to spend the night in a sleep laboratory connected to ECGs and blood oximeters. But the unfamiliar environment of the sleep lap is very different to the comfort of a patient's own bedroom, and the experience can be quite traumatic, particularly for the very young and very old - which no doubt has an effect on results.
The Alive devices make the experience vastly less invasive and more convenient. Satchwell explains: "The Alive Pulse Oximeter just clips on your finger and transmits remotely to your phone - there's no need to spend the night at a sleep lab. The data just gets sent to the lab in the morning and gives them everything they need to assess your condition. There's been a real need for a simple, comfortable method to screen for sleep apnea in your own home. It's also a convenient and a non-invasive way to measure the effectiveness of various treatments over the course of a night's sleep."
The bluetooth oximeter is also of interest to pilots, mountaineers and others involved in physical efforts at high altitudes where atmospheric oxygen levels can drop quite low. "We've got an expedition to Everest taking our gear up with them soon," says Satchwell, "they'll be able to log and upload their blood oxygen levels at intervals as they go up."
Alive's Diabetes Management System is designed to reduce reporting error and increase convenience in diabetic glucose level management. Instead of the normal routine of pin-pricking the finger, measuring glucose levels and writing them down, the Alive system simply stores a log of the data which can be transmitted at intervals to an endocrinologist who can intervene with various treatments or suggestions when changes are detected.
Exercise and training logging
"While most of our work is in medical applications, we're also seeing plenty of potential for this equipment in athletic training," says Satchwell, "because it allows you to log a fantastic amount of information about your daily training. Take a runner or a cyclist for example. We're developing a system that we call the Alive Sports System where your heart rate monitor connects to a bluetooth GPS phone and logs your speed, location and heart rate through the duration of your daily run.
"When you're done, you upload the information to our system and you can watch your whole exercise session over again in fast-forward. You watch your little man running around on a Google Map of the neighbourhood. A sidebar shows how fast you were going, what your heart-rates were at every step of the way and even, with the mini accelerometers, how much hang-time you got in the air over a particular jump. As you build up this store of data, people who are fairly serious about their training will be able to directly see their speed and fitness improving over time."
This type of exercise monitoring has already been successfully tested on a runner in the Gold Coast marathon.
Microsoft Australia have been testing an interesting application of the technology to assist athletes in training as well - a system by which the heart rate/activity monitor communicates with an MP3 player. "If you're not going hard enough," says Satchwell, "the MP3 player picks a faster song for you next. You tend to match your cadence and effort level to the music. This little gadget uses faster and slower songs to encourage you to keep your heart rate at an ideal level for cardio training, weight loss or whatever you're aiming for. It's quite a clever idea."
Satchwell says Alive is continuing to concentrate on medical applications of the equipment. There's no reason, he says, why a broader range of equipment couldn't be commercialised with the technology and made available to consumers. Bathroom scales to plot weight charts, simple consumer machinery to take blood pressure measurements and other monitoring equipment to build a picture of an individual's health changes over time that can be accessed remotely by GPs and other medical staff.
The convenience of local logging and easy uploading is the key to this small medical revolution that could bring preventative healthcare to new levels.