Wi-Fi Gets Personal — Really Personal

You can get wireless data access just about everywhere these days, from your bathtub to Barcelona’s city streets, so why not in your body?  Well, soon you will — or at least, that’s the vision of a handful of emerging biotech companies. As the Boomer generation ages, companies eyeing the overburdened U.S. medical systems see opportunities to extend the reach of existing medical care, free up health resources for those who need them most, and encourage long-term health and fitness using technology.  Here’s a look at a few of the high-tech devices aiming to revolutionize health care:

150dpi_mon_in_base2In order to diagnose heart problems, patients are traditionally hooked to electrocardiogram (ECG) monitors and confined to bed while their heart rates are monitored. But without the triggers of daily life — stress, activity and other environmental issues — heart conditions are difficult to observe and diagnose. CardioNet, which went public in March 2008 and whose shares are still trading above their IPO price, has come up with a wireless solution that allows patients to wear ECG sensors that transmit information wirelessly to a handheld device. The CardioNet monitor, which is equipped with a CDMA 1X radio, sends data via the Sprint network back to doctors, who can monitor heart activity under real-world conditions.

According to Don Jones, V-P of business development for Qualcomm’s Health and Life Sciences division (a CardioNet investor and partner), the CardioNet system is 300 percent more effective than traditional in-patient monitoring. That means improved patient care, while also saving money for hospitals and insurance companies by freeing up hospital beds. All of which is good for CardioNet’s business, too. In its fourth-quarter earnings statement, the company said demand for its device is growing at greater than 40 percent a year, and revenues climbed 44 percent from the previous year, surpassing analyst expectations.

Smart Bandaids
A host of other companies (like Triage Wireless, another Qualcomm partner) are developing “smart bandaid” technologies that can send data from patients bodies to doctors using wireless networks — Bluetooth and 3G networks among them. Like the wireless ECG monitors, smart bandaids stick to a patient’s skin, collect information and transmit it wireless to a medical monitoring system. Designed primarily for out-patient monitoring, these devices collect and transmit a surprising array of data from a single peel-and-stick sensor, including activity levels, heart rate, perspiration, body position, blood pressure, and more. Intel is also interested in the space:

Intel Research: Wireless Sensors for Monitoring Health

Public Health for Pennies
Proteus Biomedical is working on a companion technology to such “smart bandaids” as well — an edible microchip meant to signal to the skin-stuck sensor when it’s been ingested. Wonder why that might be useful? Here’s the gist: Patients don’t always take their pills. The company’s system, called “Raisin,” can be used to alert doctors, family members, or patients themselves when drugs have — or haven’t — been taken.

Proteus Biomedical's "Raisin" System

While the company has talked about the potential to use its technology for monitoring heart patient compliance with treatment, the first application (currently in clinical trials in Denver) could be tuberculosis treatment. According to Andrew Thompson, founder and CEO, 2 billion people in the world have tuberculosis. It’s a curable, but because it’s critical that patients complete their entire course of antibiotics (in order to prevent the development of drug-resistant strains), treatment requires that patients go to a physical location to receive their daily antibiotics under direct medical observation.

The “Raisin” system allows doctors to perform that same monitoring and verification remotely. “Tuberculosis is not a scourge in the U.S.,” Thompson says, but in the developing world, Proteus’ technology could bring medical treatment where it hasn’t been previously available.

Personal Care — and Fitness
But if you’re not a heart patient, and you don’t suffer from an illness that needs to be closely monitored, how can high-tech health apps help you? Through fitness monitoring and social networking, of course. Proteus Biomedical says it hopes to see its technology adopted across a range of other applications. For example, individuals could use the devices to report beneficial activities (exercising, taking medications, sleeping) and receive incentives from partners (doctors, insurance companies, social networks) with whom they share that information. (Conversely, there’s also the possibility they would earn punishment for not doing so, depending on with whom they share that information!)

A larger array of companies are working in this space, as well, some with less invasive technologies. FitLynxx (the tech behind the Nike/iPod integration), G2 Wireless, Lifesource and others are developing scales, blood pressure monitors, refrigerators, fitness gear and other devices equipped with low-power Wi-Fi for monitoring health and fitness.

And of course, don’t forget your iPhone. With its acceleromater, Wi-Fi signal and GPS, it has lots of potential to join in the fun, and many apps exist that use those tools for health and fitness purposes. Don’t think that counts as a medical device? Try again. The FDA has recently hinted that it could start regulating health-related iPhone apps.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.