Taking Care of Health

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Steering Wellness Through Technology

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You have a medical emergency in the night but looking at the condition of your patient you dont realise what the reason could be. Given the technologically advanced era we are living in, with all pervasive tech products and solutions in almost every sphere of our lives, it is still a pity that healthcare in India is one area that is not looked upon in a proactive manner and lags behind in holistic tech adoption. Healthcare solutions should provide succor at all stages: disease prevention, health monitoring and treatment (both outpatient and within hospitals). Unfortunately, the tech right now is concentrated within hospitals and allied organizations such as pharmaceuticals and medical equipment industry. The consequences of such an approach are visible only when your patient is in the advanced stages of the malaise afflicting him. Had technology been used well and early on in the life of an individual, we could bud many diseases in the infancy and prevent them from assuming life threatening proportions.

Contemporary lifestyle to blame

An increase in life-expectancy of individuals, due to improved lifestyles and reduction in hygiene related diseases has meant more people suffer from or are likely to develop chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, or even cancer. The treatment of chronic diseases covers longer periods of time, is costly and most times requires continuous monitoring of the patient's health. The Industrial Age and now the Information Age have changed people's lifestyles to be more sedentary, and now with improved lifestyles and earnings, people are able to afford and therefore consume more. WHO projects that by 2015, approximately 2.3 billion adults will be overweight and more than 700 million will be obese. This leads to higher use of healthcare resources.

Tech to the patient's aid

The advancement in research and technology means more and more tools and products that people living with chronic diseases can use round-the-clock to monitor their vital parameters. The technologies focus on patient centric initiatives where the patients themselves initiate the first line of treatment by deciding when to consult a physician, consume the prescribed medicine and in worse cases the next line of treatment in the form of healthcare providers such as paramedics and hospitals needs to be resorted to. By wearing arm bands that are continuously connected to a patient monitoring system and keep transmitting health parameters to dental implants, biochips implanted in the brain or limbs of patients, there are multilple devices available that can be connected to a centralised patient monitoring system and send alerts to doctors whenever required. Multi-level monitor systems use visual, sound and motion sensors that collect patient data without the awareness of the person being monitored. One example of such a device is a smart toilet that monitors urine sugar levels regularly during a bathroom visit. This also includes a special scale and a blood pressure cuff for people to monitor their weight, body mass index and blood pressure levels. A client software sitting on the patient's home computer can collect data from such devices via WiFi for analysis. Such tracking makes it easy for people to keep abreast of changing body conditions. This information can be transmitted via the Internet to healthcare providers for necessary action.

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Social networking as a medical aid

A key phenomenon that's taking the world by storm---social networking---can also be used for medical networking. Healthcare is one domain where social networking can play a major role. People can connect with others with similar health issues and look up for advice. Sites such as Medicine.net and WebMD contain detailed information about all diseases and encourage people to keep their information updated before they consult a doctor. This way you can go prepared with a background of the disease and ask more pointed questions to your doctor. Most sites also provide knowledge on customized diets, online coaching programs and chat rooms. These sites connect patients with medical issues to others who can share treatments, symptoms and resources, helping patients learn about available products, services and research.

The ubiquitous smartphone comes to aid

Many people are mobile and need their health and fitness information, encouragements and reminders wherever they are. Internet-enabled smartphones that can run such applications are filling this gap. While other Internet-accessible devices are useful for home and office, the obvious advantage of the smartphone is that it's with you all the time. For today's patient-consumer, the device of choice is the smartphone, notably the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry. The iPhone alone has more than 5,800 health and wellness applications that can be downloaded to provide content, tracking, alerts and reminders to log vital signs. Some offer options to connect to the nearest doctors, dieticians, hospitals and other medical organizations.

Biological implants

We've seen devices such as pacemakers that are implanted within the body to improving the beating rhythms of a slow heart. Likewise there are many more devices that are regularly implanted to check vital parameters or assist in the working of organs. Now, depending on the disease or illness, the physician-prescribed treatment plan has a number of patient tasks including monitoring vital signs, managing exercise and diet, and taking medications. Diabetes in one disease that requires frequent monitoring of a patient's glucose levels. According to the 2009 Diabetes Atlas, diabetes affects an estimated 285 million people worldwide and is projected to affect 438 million by 2030. Patients need to closely monitor their blood sugar and make medication (insulin) and diet adjustments daily. Today's process of pricking a finger and using a glucose meter to determine blood levels is painful and not always accurate. Some companies are testing glucose-sensing RFID microchips, about the size of a long grain of rice, to monitor the glucose levels of diabetics. The chip is typically implanted in the arm, and the patient uses a wireless scanning device to both obtain readings from the chip and charge the chip (ie, batteries not required). The chip, currently in development, would eliminate the need for daily finger pricks, making it much easier for diabetics to record and respond to their blood sugar levels. Another tech under development is a special tattoo that allows diabetics to monitor glucose levels quickly and more accurately. The research uses a type of nanotech 'ink' which is injected in the skin and changes fluorescence depending on the blood sugar level. It requires an external device to measure and translate this fluorescence. Apart from blood sugar levels, toxins, oxygen levels, and hormones – all can be monitored using nanotechnology. Another type of breakthrough embedded monitoring is the wireless heart pressure monitor, an implant the size of a paper clip that could reduce hospitalizations associated with heart disease. A system is implanted in the pulmonary artery via catheter and transmits the patient's heart mean pressure, blood pressure, heart rate and cardiac output to a receiver that sends the information to a secure Website. Doctors can review the information via computer or hand-held device and adjust medications accordingly, forestalling a cardiac episode.

Bionic prosthetics

A British company, Touch Bionics, creates advanced upper-limb prosthetics including hands, fingers and skin. Its i-LIMB Pulse prosthetic hand provides extraordinary levels of dexterity and control, using mechanical engineering for five fully-articulated fingers and high-strength plastics that are lightweight and robust. The hand has a control system based on a traditional myoelectric signal (muscle signal from the remaining limb) to open and close the hand's life-like fingers.The hand can bend, touch, pick up and point, mimicking a natural hand more closely than earlier prosthetics, and its features can be customized to a person's preference via wireless Bluetooth software. Touch Bionics also creates artificial skin that is used as a covering for the i-LIMB Pulse. It can be fully customized and includes nails, veins and freckles to match the living hand.

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