From pacemakers to CT scanners, computers have become ubiquitous in health care. Now networks are taking medicine to the next level. A doctor pulls up a digitized scan on a laptop within seconds. A radiologist in Australia working the day shift reads x-rays in Kansas where it’s 3:00 AM. Hospitals instantly locate IV pumps, wheelchairs, and vital sign monitors scattered around the facility. Surgeons use video cameras, robotic instruments, and speech recognition systems to enhance their operating skills.
No modern hospital is complete without in-building mobile communications. Most install either a distributed antenna system or a wireless local area network. Today’s hospital IT manager can employ tools such as Armstrong World Industries’ ceiling tiles with integrated antennas; Vocera’s Star Trek-like Communications Badges; Air Magnet’s performance and security monitors; and Centrak’s people and equipment tracking system.
The most dramatic changes are coming not in how health care providers communicate amongst themselves, but how they interact with patients. Patients perform an expanding portfolio of diagnostic tests and therapies in the comfort of their own homes. Medical devices are monitored, reconfigured, and updated over phone lines. Medical emergencies are reported and responded to anytime, anywhere. Routine communications between patients, pharmacies, and doctors are automated using mobile phones and the Internet. Qualcomm VP Don Jones calls it “putting every body on the 'Net.”
The Internet gives patients unprecedented access to information about medical conditions and treatments. Patients share their concerns and ideas with each other in online discussion forums. The Internet also enables a new type of voyeurism: Surgeons live-streaming updates from the operating room via Twitter. Though some people consider hyper-access frightening, and not all online information is reliable, it can’t help but empower patients and their families over the long run.
Telemedicine goes beyond remote interpretation of scans. Robotic tools are increasingly used in the OR for greater precision and steadiness. But if a surgeon sitting across a room can operate on a patient using robotics, the same can be done a continent away. And that’s just what is starting to happen. On Sept. 7, 2001, Dr. Jacques Marescaux operating in New York removed the gall bladder of a woman in Strasbourg, France using a remote-control, robot-assisted laparoscopic device. That proved it could be done, but no one has quite figured out the best way to exploit it.
Health care applications for mobile phones are getting ready to take off. CardioNet lets cardiologists monitor patients’ cardiac rhythm and performance. The Pill Phone reminds users when it’s time to take their medicine and even handles refill requests. GreatCall's Jitterbug mobile phone service gives senior citizens 24-hour access to registered nurses.
Expect biological sensors to be integrated with mobile phones in the next few years. For example, Orla Protein Technologies and Japan Radio Company announced they are developing a mobile phone chip that can read swabs and blood samples and transmit the results to doctors.
Microsoft and Google are promoting Internet-based personal health records (PHRs). Microsoft’s HealthVault ecosystem includes major health care providers; patient advocacy groups; and device vendors. Google Health has its own portfolio of online health services. Though PHRs put patients in control of their own medical records, they raise a host of privacy and security concerns.
Some physicians fear that the Internet provides patients information that is wrong, only partly true, or not applicable to their specific circumstances. Those are legitimate concerns, but they apply to all sources of information and not just the Internet. Patients just need a little healthy skepticism.
One clear benefit for patients and their families is the ease with which they can track down physicians and facilities with experience treating rare conditions. In fact, the Internet has taken the quest for optimal health care global. Patients are increasingly traveling overseas for specific medical expertise or to save money—a practice known as “medical tourism.”
Some health care reform advocates believe we rely too much on expensive technology. They have it exactly backwards. As more people monitor themselves we will learn to detect specific health problems during their earliest, most treatable stages. Medical technology isn’t the problem—it’s the solution.
Next time: Better Living Through Biomedical Engineering
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