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Managing health through mobile

Ramya Kannan



Lionel Tarassenko.

CHENNAI: Like William Blake once hoped, it is possible to hold infinity in your palm. At least, when a mobile phone is in the hollow of your hand.

While new mobile applications are being written ever so often, the mobile is yet to be fully exploited for a life-saving function — literally. mHealth, which fulfils that, is only a few years old, and the advantage of that is that it is only set to grow dramatically. One of the world's foremost experts in applying signal processing technology to medical diagnostics, Lionel Tarassenko, chair, Royal Academy of Engineering, U.K., firmly believes in that.

He has piloted a number of trials to study the efficacy of mHealth technologies, the results of which indicate that health care indeed has a powerful tool in the mobile. “Bio-med engineering, which is really the application of engineering technology to medicine, is just beginning to take off in India. Maybe in the U.K., we are 5-10 years ahead. But in some places, given India's advantage with technology, people are quickly catching up,” Professor Tarassenko said during a recent trip to Chennai.

One area that professionals in the U.K. are focussing on and that is also relevant to India is chronic diseases. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and blood sugar levels are straining the National Health Service, so there is a lot of emphasis on giving the people tools to manage their health better.

Readings

“Over the past 5-6 years, the focus has shifted to the mobile phone, since nearly everybody has a mobile phone,” he explained. Patients can take readings of their sugar and blood pressure levels and send them through the phone to a server which, synched with the local hospital, provides feedback. For instance, if there has been no update from a particular person in a while, reminders are sent through the phone. Patients can also maintain a quick diary on the phone as to what they are eating, how much exercise they get along with the readings, helping influence their treatment.

The information, which is 256 bit ssl encrypted, is sent to clinicians in the local hospital and is automatically prioritised in terms of how bad the condition of the patient is, allowing the nurse or healthcare professional to pay attention to them first. “This is a twin attack — the information gets back to the patient on the phone screen allowing them to see how they are getting on, and at the same time, a call from a nurse for those who are not doing so well. Hopefully, this approach means they do not have to get emergency admission to hospital or even need to see a doctor.”

When Professor Tarassenko asked, “What is the everyday tool that will help monitor patients' health regularly and will be effective?” it was pure rhetoric. His team has proved control of diabetes in patients from the young adult clinic in a Oxford hospital using the mobile phone. “If we can reduce number of unplanned admissions, we have paid for the system several times over. We have worked in eight regions in the U.K. to show that this happens. If we can achieve a 20 per cent reduction in hospital admissions, the system has paid for itself. Over 20 per cent means savings,” he added.

Another form of mHealth is to use it to help people in villages who have no access to health care. “Maybe, this can work with community health workers in India, who, with basic health care training and armed with a smartphone for data collection, a BP monitor, blood sugar reader, can go around the village taking readings,” Professor Tarassenko explained. This could probably be integrated into the Unique ID project and bio-medical data could be embedded smartly on the card. Mobile phones can also help to keep track of medical and vaccine supplies to rural areas.

If mHealth really takes off, he said, free data bundles will be available for medical data, while the patient pays only for other browsing. Already, discussions are on with network operators in the U.K. and it is likely to come through in the next two to three years. As they await it, Professor Tarassenko and his team are busy writing mHealth applications for iPhone.

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