"If GE or Siemens ends up becoming the most dominant player controlling next-generation smart healthcare, I'm convinced that they'll eventually start giving away -- for free -- home sensing devices like the blood pressure monitors we make. If the network service provider takes ultimate control, the same thing would happen," said Shiga.
For home healthcare product suppliers like Omron to survive the turmoil, "We must identify and capture, early on, the types of data doctors need, and accumulate it long enough to build the meaningful database the medical community finds useful and trusts."
Three distinct industry groups -- sensing, network, and control -- are after the healthcare market.
Wellness Link and Medical Link
Fortunately, blood pressure is a vital sign doctors will always need. Further, because a patient's blood pressure fluctuates even during the same day, cumulative data becomes valuable information that helps doctors diagnose potential medical conditions.
Rather than having patients manually record and submit their blood pressure data to doctors (Shiga said patients tend to check their blood pressures often, so that they can cherry-pick numbers they think their doctors like), senior citizens are now put on "Wellness Link," a platform for a healthcare service system Omron and NTT Docomo jointly developed in Japan. By using a home-use blood pressure monitoring device embedded with a 3G modem, senior citizens simply push a button to check their own pressure, with data automatically transmitted to "Media Link" used by doctors, Shiga explained.
Both Wellness Link and Media Link use the same platform, but the former is for consumers to collect data at home, while the latter runs applications to be used by doctors in clinics and hospitals.
Japan is already showing a blueprint of where many advanced countries are likely to end up -- as its rapidly increasing number of senior citizens results in the unsustainable growth of healthcare costs. From 2005 to 2055, Shiga notes, the Japanese population will decrease by 30 percent, while the peak age of the nation's population in 2055 will be in the 80s.
To manage soaring costs, individuals will be pressured to take responsibility for their own health, Shiga believes. The key to smart healthcare will require everyone to keep a personal healthcare record at home, which then will be used by doctors responsible for managing illness. As the population ages, the biggest threat to people's health will be so-called "lifestyle" illnesses, according to Shiga. Such illnesses include stroke, heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and chronic renal failures.
In managing life-related diseases, it's important for individuals to understand their own lifestyle data, said Shiga. That includes: how well they sleep every day; how much they eat; and how much they exercise. "Everyone understands the importance of sleep, meals, and exercise in general terms; but very few take action, because they don't keep their own personal records, and they don't see it as their own problem."
Omron hopes to play a critical role in developing a slew of new, easy-to-use sensing devices for consumers. Meanwhile the company defines its mission as the accumulation of such essential data and making it available in a format the medical community will find easy to use.
Beyond blood pressures, Shiga was asked by EE Times what else Omron believes important to track electronically -- data points deemed necessary by the medical community in managing lifestyle illnesses such as diabetes. "Obviously, for one, the blood sugar level. There are a few more things, but we are keeping them confidential for now."