LYON, France -- Researchers increasingly share a vision of a coming revolution in health care, where today's services, controlled by physicians and hospitals, give way to a new model in which consumers directly access devices and services on the Internet or their emerging home and personal-area networks.
The diagnostic and therapeutic equipment now locked up in hospitals will someday be available on home or public networks, according to a leading University of Washington professor working to enable the move.
The shift demands not only changes in technology, but upheavals in public policy and business models, so just how and when the "e-health" era will arrive is still uncertain.
What is clear is that researchers believe consumer wireless devices will be the front line of a future system focused on preventative care. More than a dozen papers from researchers around the globe described separate efforts toward that vision at the annual conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) held here late last month.
Several efforts prototyped so-called ambient devices that continuously monitor health signs over wireless nets without a user's intervention. For example, researchers at Seoul National University embedded the electronics for a wireless electrocardiography (ECG) machine and other monitors in a desk chair to test for signs of ailments such as hypertension.
Kanazawa University in Japan went one better by creating a simulated home environment in a lab with monitoring devices embedded in pillows, slippers, bathtubs, bathroom floors and toilets. The devices tracked everything from blood pressure and weight to ECG patterns and whether subjects got a good night's sleep.
Intel's digital home group reported on a project in Ireland to define digital systems for assisted-living care. The Technology Research for Independent Living (TRIL) program is conducting clinical trials to determine which technologies it will put into a prototype environment late next year. More than 60 researchers are involved in the multimillion-dollar, three-year effort.
Separately, Intel is seeding researchers with a small ZigBee sensor network module called Shimmer to aid in such investigations. "A lot of researchers have great ideas, then wind up spending all their time building hardware," said Michael J. McGrath, a senior research technologist at Intel Ireland. "We'd like to provide them the hardware and let them focus on doing research."
But for Yongmin Kim, professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, it's all about building the hardware. Kim's group has secured a grant from the Bill and Mel-inda Gates Foundation to create a $2,000 point-of-care system that could test for health problems ranging from HIV to influenza using disposable modules. The device would replace lab gear in developing countries that would otherwise cost tens of thousands of dollars. The group is also working on a $2,000 ultrasound machine that could diagnose common ailments without requiring a human expert to interpret the images.
It could take five years or more for the devices to be ready for use in a doctor's office, and even longer for them to become consumer products, Kim said. "It will take 10 years to move these systems from primary-care offices to the home," he said.
Other researchers are taking it a step further and developing wearable devices using various heart, breath and motion sensors. Researchers at Harvard Medical School , for example, described how they used multiple wearable devices with embedded accelerometers to measure changes in symptoms among patients with Parkinson's disease. Several devices, the size of small MP3 players, were strapped onto a patient's arms and legs and linked via ZigBee to gather data on changes in the patient's motor control symptoms over a period of weeks.
"Doctors can use this to make more-informed decisions about which drugs at what levels to prescribe, and to better monitor the effectiveness of those prescriptions," said Paolo Bonato, director of the motion analysis lab at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Network (a Harvard teaching hospital) in Boston and an expert in wearable medical devices.
In other papers, researchers reported on their use of wearables to track sleeping disorders, exercise habits and other issues. Nokia displayed a flexible sensor platform it designed based on an Altera Cyclone II FPGA to serve such applications. The device, the size of a fat wristwatch, supports a number of sensors linked over Bluetooth.
"It's quite a general platform, but the FPGA is the big bottleneck for power consumption," said Tom Ahola of Nokia Research Center in Helsinki. A next-generation platform will use an Actel Igloo or QuickLogic PolarPro FPGA and the low-power version of Bluetooth formerly known as Wibree, he said.