Almost every week we discuss a young start-up, x, developing a new sensor, y, for health application, z. Most of these companies range from early to very early stage, which is why we were surprised to hear at this week’s mHealth Summit that wireless communications behemoth AT&T is developing an asthma sensor. It is one such initiative under an umbrella that they call AT&T ForHealth. We spoke with Bob Miller, a researcher at AT&T Labs who is familiar with the asthma project.
Shiv Gaglani, Medgadget: Why did AT&T decide to create an asthma sensor? Why not just partner with a company doing this?
Bob Miller: AT&T Labs researchers first decided to create an asthma sensor when they became aware of the rising trend in asthma sufferers, which is currently at its highest level on record. Knowing that this chronic illness affects so many and causes 27,000 adults in America to miss work each day they realized something had to be done to empower sufferers.
In addition, a new generation of lightweight and lower cost sensors, enabled by data-driven healthcare, is opening new doors to continuously monitoring health. Almost any existing medical device can be transformed by sensors: heart monitors, scales, pill dispensers, blood-pressure meters, pulse-oximeters (combined pulse-rate and blood oxygen concentration sensors), glucometers, and many others (even gait and fall sensors using, for example, the “smart slippers”). Data from these sensors—detailed and obtained at frequent intervals—provides a much more comprehensive, multidimensional view of health and wellness over the long term than is possible with infrequent office visits.
For the Asthma Triggers project, we worked with a manufacturer to create the miniature VOC sensor, however, there is much more to making a new healthcare measurement solution work productively. There have to be software, connectivity and a network to get the sensor data into a form that can be interpreted by physicians, caregivers, and patients. That’s where AT&T’s research comes in. The sensor itself is part of an end-to-end measurement, wireless transmission, data storage, and analysis system to get such a concept ready for meaningful use.
The opportunity to innovate in this field is vast and a collaboration between AT&T’s Labs and the AT&T ForHealth HIE platform was natural considering the brilliant minds, technology and expertise in both groups – and ultimately the power of the AT&T network which powers the device.
Medgadget: How does the sensor work?
Miller: The Asthma Triggers sensor scans the air for the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that may be associated with some types of asthma. The device builds upon the ActuariusTM gateway cloud platform and uses a battery-operated microcomputer equipped with ZigBee wireless connectivity to provide VOC data to Telehealth Remote Monitoring networks. By leveraging the power and connectivity of the network, the sensor feeds air quality data through AT&T’s advanced collaborative care and healthcare information exchange (HIE) platform, AT&T Healthcare Community Online. The resulting VOC information can then be forwarded to appointed smartphones, computers and tablets.
Medgadget: What about people who aren’t part of the AT&T network or do not reside nearby?
Miller: The system does not require patients, caregivers, or healthcare professionals to be in an AT&T service area, as the Actuarius gateway can work with a variety of broadband connections and wireless systems due to its standardized communications interfaces. However the VOC/asthma device is still a prototype and is an example of what the future of healthcare will enable for patients as sensors and computer-assisted analytics become more commonplace.
Medgadget: Are there other health conditions AT&T Labs is currently working on?
Miller: As healthcare becomes increasingly data-driven thanks to a new generation of inexpensive sensors, communication capabilities will play an important role in transmitting this data to where it’s needed—to doctors, hospitals, researchers. AT&T Research is laying the groundwork now for a complete medical communications infrastructure, not just for an asthma device but for a whole host of sensor-based medical devices.
To learn more about the asthma project, here’s a video from AT&T:
More information: AT&T Labs Asthma Trigger Sensor