MIT Technology Review

Monday, December 12, 2011

Box Sends Health Data Right to the Cloud

Qualcomm aims to integrate home-health monitoring devices, and give doctors easier access.

Some 133 million Americans suffer from chronic disease, and many would benefit from better home-based monitoring of their condition, but today's home-health medical machines remain mostly unconnected to the doctors who might want to check the data between visits.

A new platform from Qualcomm aims to solve this with a simple box that detects signals from devices from dozens of makers, and dispatches them by cellular connection to a cloud database that can be accessed by medical staff as well as patients.

"Health-care reform will pay providers for keeping you well instead of treating you when you're sick," says John Halamka, a Harvard Medical School professor and chief information officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. "In the future, it's likely that continuous home monitoring with frequent caregiver interventions will replace many hospital visits. The Qualcomm technologies support this kind of workflow."

Qualcomm has formed a division called Qualcomm Life to sell the new home-based hub, run the back-end databases, and establish partnerships with device makers. The platform meets all medical standards, is "technology agnostic, and can pair with virtually anything," says Rick Valencia, Qualcomm Life's vice president. Still, a payment system between medical device makers and insurance providers remains to be worked out.

Andy Castonguay, principal analyst for handsets and devices at Informa, says that while many players are working on wireless solutions, the Qualcomm system "is the first product on the market that allows a drop-and-play solution in the home. There are caveats—you need the service and payment elements to line up—but once that happens, it allows someone to pop it into their home and use this as a central point of communication.

Monitoring devices include blood-pressure monitors for hypertension patients; glucose monitoring for diabetics; simple electronic scales that can warn of fluid retention—a key indicator for heart failure; and breathing tests for people with pulmonary disease and asthma.

More than half of patients suffering from chronic diseases could benefit from wireless connectivity of their monitoring devices, Valencia says. Yet for every one device that beams out information to health-care providers, four do not—and this is partly because of technical difficulties. The situation is such that some people with sleep-apnea monitors must write down readings and fax them to insurance providers to get reimbursed, he says.

Halamka says such devices are likely to get used much more as the population ages and because of health-care reform, which in part aims to reimburse doctors for keeping patients healthy. This will likely mean more home telemonitoring between visits to the doctor, says Halamka, who blogged on the topic earlier this year.

Many companies are working on wireless solutions for health monitoring, including ones that work as smart-phone apps. In theory, a smart phone could serve the same Swiss-army-knife role as the Qualcomm technology. But Castonguay says current phones do not include the kinds of wireless radio receivers used by many medical devices, which typically use the low-energy protocols Zigbee and Bluetooth. And they generally don't meet the various security and reliability standards for medical devices.  

"There are plenty of apps that will monitor your heart rate or glucose, but if it's involved in any clinical decision making, that will need to be sent over secure channels and have backup capabilities," he says.