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Technology and health

Telstra News

Posted on June 15, 2010

3 min read

I was somewhat surprised to see in the recent debate on Australia’s health system that delivering hospital beds cost $1m per bed. The combination of an ageing population and high medical costs make it imperative to find alternative ways of delivering health care and inevitably one must turn to the opportunities provided by technology in this regard. Fortunately, a future is starting to emerge where technology can have significant impact.

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting in San Diego which brings the wireless industry together with life sciences community. Interestingly on this same trip to the States I had spent time in Silicon Valley and could not help reflecting that the centre of mass of innovation in California seems to be shifting south to San Diego and that is in no small way due to the fact that San Diego is rapidly becoming the global centre of technology innovations in healthcare.

What became clear to me is that technology has a significant role to play in 4 aspects of healthcare, namely Wellness, Disease Management, Productivity and Health Information. Wellness is probably the best developed aspect at this stage, as many devices to help people manage their lifestyles are commonly available: For example, heart rate monitors to enable users to exercise more effectively and Internet portals to advise people on health related matters have been around for years. New examples are emerging such as scales that upload your weight to the Internet so you can track it over time and an alarm clock that measures and reports your sleep patterns.

However, in my view, the most exciting developments are occurring in disease management. This is critically dependent on sensors to measure various vital signs and these are becoming more sophisticated by the day. For example, one of the more fascinating developments is a method to track whether patients have taken their tablets each day. The way this works is that a tiny RFID chip is implanted in the pill. When the pill is swallowed the stomach acids act like a battery and produces enough electricity to power the RFID chip for long enough for it to send out a small radio signal. This is picked up by a bandaid sensor – literally stuck on the patient like a bandaid – which then relays the signal via Bluetooth to the mobile phone and from there via the mobile broadband network to a central server which monitors the activity.

While this is a somewhat extreme example, the ability of your mobile phone to act as a gateway for all sorts of bio-measurements is something that I expect to see rapidly adopted over the next few years: glucose, blood pressure, blood oxygen, ECG, and even one day blood composition. There is a significant potential for these measurement and monitoring systems to keep patients out of those $1m hospital beds. Of course, there will be concerns over security, privacy, Government Control, etc which need to be dealt with but with proper management these anxieties pale compared to the potential to improve healthcare and reduce the burden on the taxpayer.