We have grown accustomed to smartphones, smartwatches and a variety of other intelligent technology that collects and analyzes all kinds of data to help us understand how we interact with the world around us. Now there are smart healthcare devices, too. But these innovations aren’t mere gimmicks – they’re having a real impact on the way medical conditions can be treated and managed. Take asthma, for example, where smart technologies are helping those with the illness live healthier and more satisfying lives.
We’ve rounded up three technologies that will continue to revolutionize the way in which patients self-manage their asthma.
1. Smart inhalers
Long gone are the days when consumers pressed an inhaler without knowing whether they received an accurate dose of medication. Smart inhalers now include mouthpieces with integrated electronics that count actual drug doses based on drug discharge. Some also remind individuals when they need to take a dose, coach them on how to use their inhaler properly, or even transmit real-time data about inhaler use to their provider. When providers receive this information, they can reach out to patients directly when symptoms worsen.
Digital sensors, which clip directly onto existing inhalers, are also available. These sensors, which determine the frequency and accuracy of inhaler use, sync wirelessly with smart devices via Bluetooth and send information to an app that generates personalized insights and reminders. Some vendors claim these sensors can reduce severe asthma attacks by 60% and ensure up to 50% more symptom-free days.
The benefits of using smart inhalers include better asthma control, improved quality of life and increased awareness of environmental triggers that might otherwise go undetected (such as indoor or outdoor allergens, tobacco smoke, chemical irritants and air pollution). People with the condition also don’t need to remember when they last had an asthma flare-up or how many times they used their inhaler in the past month. When individuals share the data with their providers, they benefit from more targeted treatments and education. One drawback, however, is that smart inhalers don’t communicate symptoms – a critical piece of the puzzle that helps providers manage asthma effectively.
Researchers at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina have developed wearable wristbands and patches that can help predict and prevent asthma attacks. The wristband monitors motion, heart rate and oxygen in the blood, and correlates this data with environmental factors that can trigger asthma symptoms. The patch includes similar sensors that track respiratory rate, skin impedance and wheezing in the lungs. Both devices transmit data wirelessly to computers where software collects and records the data.
At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a research team is developing a wearable graphene-based sensor that could improve the early detection of asthma attacks. “Our vision is to develop a device that someone with asthma or another respiratory disease can wear around their neck or on their wrist and blow into it periodically to predict the onset of an asthma attack or other problems,” Mehdi Javanmard, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, told Rutgers Today.
3. Mobile applications
Asthma sufferers can download a variety of free or low-cost mobile applications to help manage their symptoms. Some apps provide asthma reduction tips and home remedies, while others help individuals keep logs of their attacks, building a database of triggers, duration, location, symptoms and more. All this information helps raise a patient’s awareness of what triggers – and can help prevent – their attacks.
At the more sophisticated end, Dr Steven Kagen, an allergy and immunology specialist in Appleton, Wisconsin, has developed an app that correlates self-reported symptoms (such as wheezing lungs, itchy eyes, a cough or a runny nose) with various weather elements, allowing consumers to identify the environmental triggers that make them feel worse. Patients can also use the app to predict symptoms based on a four-day future weather forecast and bring in weather data from another geographic area so they can prepare themselves when travelling. The more often consumers complete the test, the more precise the app is at defining triggers. The app also geo-locates the closest board-certified asthma and allergy specialist so users can seek help immediately.
“This information is empowering to patients,” says Dr Kagen, who also believes that once people understand why they feel the way they do, they’re more able to make smart choices and take proactive steps to feel better.
Smart technology boosting patient engagement
These changes are happening globally, too. By 2022, the smart inhaler market is expected to reach $191m, according to Allied Market Research. World Health Organization (WHO) statistics estimate that approximately 235 million people suffer from asthma worldwide, but the true figure could be even larger – a 2014 Global Asthma Network report put the number above 300 million.
Asthma is the most common chronic disease among children globally. In the US, multiple projects are funded with a $144 million grant to develop wearable devices for children that collect data (including weather data), transmit it to the cloud, and then feed the information into the child’s electronic health record. The platform also stores data from past asthma attacks, helping providers and caregivers predict potential attacks and pinpoint triggers.
According to Dr Kagen, there may be an even more widespread use of smart technology among the US population in the future. That’s because providers based in the US are incentivized by payers to provide low-cost, high-quality care. Smart technology enables this because it supports remote monitoring and population health management.
“Mobile telecommunications will make it possible to receive higher-quality care at lower overall costs,” Dr Kagen says.
The more rapidly we adopt telemedicine and the remote monitoring of patients’ symptoms, the healthier our economy and patients will be.
Australia, Northern and Western Europe, and Brazil have the highest rates of asthma worldwide, according to the Global Asthma Network. The good news is that many of these countries are also taking action with the help of smart technology.
Asthma UK, a leading charity organization that funds asthma research, recently published a report supporting the widespread use of smart inhalers and other connected devices to help consumers manage asthma symptoms. To enable this adoption, Asthma UK says there must be clear technical standards for smart inhalers to ensure that the devices are user-friendly and collect clinically-meaningful data. Providers must also be able to integrate this data into the electronic health records for easy analysis.
Asthma Australia has developed a mobile app that provides access to information about asthma medications, action plans, device techniques, and more. The organization also offers a free coaching program to help individuals improve their asthma control.
And according to Dr Kagen, as people become aware of these devices, learn how to use them and trust the data they produce, the industry will likely continue to see increased adoption and, ultimately, better patient outcomes.