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The Doctor in Your Pocket: How We're Teaching Mobile Technology to Keep Us Healthy


Smartphones and other electronics are helping patients save money -- and helping doctors save lives.

Your next phone could know you're sick even before you do. How? By monitoring infectious disease through data tracking.

"Certain patterns picked up by a person's smartphone – such as a decrease in calls and text messages – could correspond to the onset of the common cold and influenza. Software can intervene when data analysis suggests the early stages of an illness."

So says Kate Greene, a science and technology writer, in The Human Face of Big Data. She also points out that smartphones can collect data like location, speech patterns and motion without any active input from the user – which is where things get really interesting. "This sort of passive sensing of a person's daily life [provides] powerful tools for personal medical and psychological diagnostics," says Greene.

These innovations are particularly apt when the percentage of people over age 60 in this country is growing faster than any other age group – and when the trajectory in Medicare spending, which currently consumes 15 percent of the federal budget, is being fueled by demographics.

Combined with the use of massive amounts of data, "these innovations are already enabling us as a society to provide healthier lives for our children and to provide seniors with independence while keeping them safe," Rick Smolan, co-creator of the Big Data project, told The Fiscal Times.

Here are three concrete and compelling ways that data, technology and health care are intersecting to help change the face of American life and health care – while also keeping a careful eye on the bottom line (some of this information courtesy of the book):

Riding a 'Magic Carpet'

Intel (NASDAQ:INTC)-GE (NYSE:GE) Care Innovations Lab, a joint venture of two of the world's largest corporations, has been working on new "aging-in-place" devices designed to enable seniors to live at home as long as possible – rather than be schlepped off to costly and not-so-homey nursing or senior care facilities.

The company has prototyped a technology called the Magic Carpet, literally a carpet embedded with sensors and accelerometers that can be installed in an elderly person's home.

In the first week, the carpet observes and "learns" the older person's typical routine. If Mom, for example, walks into the kitchen each morning at 7 a.m. for a cup of coffee, the carpet notes that. "It doesn't articulate 'good' or 'bad,'" Smolan explains. "It just records that this is how Mom walks on a normal day."

After the first week, the system rigorously checks for sudden or even gradual abnormalities in the elderly person's "baseline." If Mom is moving more slowly than usual, for example – or if it's 11 a.m. by the time she first sets foot in the kitchen for her morning coffee – the system sends an alert to a family member or physician.

Devices like this are particularly promising when doctors and nurses – or farflung family members, for that matter – are not always "on hand to encourage healthy behavior, but mobile phones and other wireless gadgets can be," said The Economist about the sensor-stuffed carpet, an example of what Intel-GE calls "people-centered, technology-based solutions."
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