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Health Technology Comes Home

June 14, 2012 | Comments

Personal health and fitness technology is nothing new. Pedometers, sports watches and armband heart monitors have been around for years and there are thousands of apps in the Health & Fitness section of the iPhone App Store alone. You can go online right now and buy a smart shirt with embedded sensors that monitor heart rate, and new products are being developed all the time, including a case that transforms the iPhone into a mini EKG machine.

But the most exciting news in health technology is the emergence of home-based monitoring systems that enable caregivers and medical professionals to keep tabs on aging relatives, especially those with chronic illnesses or disabilities, making it possible for many to continue living at home instead of moving into a managed-care facility.

Home-based health monitoring is one of technology's most promising growth areas and will become increasingly important as the number of Americans who are 65 and older rises steadily, expanding from more than 40 million today to 55 million in 2020 and more than 80 million by 2040.

A New Age for Healthcare

Today's cloud-based systems are tailored to individual needs and perform a variety of monitoring, data sharing and socialization functions intended to help keep loved ones healthy, safe and happy.

A touchscreen terminal that looks like a digital photo frame is installed in the home (usually in the kitchen) and serves as a hub for information, communication and socialization, allowing grandparents who don't have (or want) a computer to stay connected with family. Relatives can upload recipes, photos and videos, add links to Facebook photo albums and post messages, all of which can be accessed through an intuitive, age-appropriate interface; the system also has a family calendar and custom "channels" with music, games, brain exercises and video chatting.

Remote health monitoring is accomplished through wireless sensors that are placed throughout the house to monitor daily activities such as sleeping, eating and taking medication. Rules are established that instruct the system to call or send text and email alerts to caregivers if an expected activity, like getting out of bed in the morning, doesn't occur. The system also monitors wellness and helps manage chronic conditions through wireless devices that read blood pressure, glucose levels and other vital signs; alerts are automatically sent if readings are outside of the expected range, and results can be accessed by caregivers and healthcare providers at any time.

To manage medication, reminders with instructions are sent to the touchscreen terminal or an electronic pill dispenser is used to notify the loved one when it's time to take medication, dispense the correct dosage and notify caregivers if medication was not taken. Home-based health systems can also be customized to perform other actions such as automatically lighting a path to the bathroom at night.

The future of in-home healthcare is brimming with possibilities. Ava, a roving pedestal robot with built-in videoconferencing, is already slated for in-hospital testing later this year. Can robotic health aides be far behind?