mHealth: Driving Diabetics to Better Health on The Go

The new technology can warn patients of an impending emergency, or let them upload data through speech-to-text interaction while in their vehicle.

AS consumer demand for being in the know about one’s health while on the go continues to rise, this is an idea whose time has come. In a much-delayed marriage of medical technology, consumer electronics and automotive engineering, Medtronic Inc., a leading manufacturer of glucose monitoring devices, and Ford Motor Co. on Wednesday unveiled a prototype device that uses the automaker’s in-car communications system called Sync to help drivers track their blood glucose activity when they’re behind the wheel.

Medtronic and Ford have teamed up on a prototype device that helps drivers track blood sugar levels while on the go

Working with Medtronic, Ford researchers have developed a prototype system that allows Sync ‒ developed jointly by Ford and Microsoft ‒ to connect via Bluetooth to a Medtronic continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) device and share glucose levels and trends through audio and a center stack display and provide secondary alerts if levels are too low. Ford wants to introduce the diagnostic feature on a new vehicle in the next “one to two years.”

For people with diabetes and their caregivers, constant knowledge and control of glucose levels is critical to avoiding hypoglycemia or low glucose, which can cause confusion, lightheadedness, blurry vision and a host of other symptoms that could be dangerous while driving. Many now depend on a portable CGM device to track their levels.

The high-tech approach makes good use of widely available communications technology to safeguard patients and improve quality of care. Using Bluetooth connectivity, the system links the automaker’s popular in-car infotainment system, called Sync, to a Medtronic CGM. If a driver’s glucose levels are too low, an alert sounds or a signal appears on a dashboard screen.

CGM is the New Standard

The idea has won some preliminary fans in the diabetes community. “I know when I’m driving, if the ‘check engine’ light comes on, I’m going to pay attention,” said Dr. Richard Bergenstal, executive director of Park Nicollet’s International Diabetes Center. “It’s kind of the same principle.”

On the face of it, pairing the Medtronic technology with automotive engineering may seem far-fetched, even unnecessary, but Ford maintains that 78 percent of U.S. consumers are deeply interested in “mobile health solutions.” It cites a recent study by digital messaging powerhouse MobileStorm that confirmed this phenomenon, indicating that medical and healthcare apps was the third fastest-growing category of smartphone applications in early 2010. Indeed, major app stores, such as the Apple App Store, are now housing upward of 17,000 available health apps for download, with nearly 60 percent of those aimed at consumers rather than healthcare professionals, reports mobile research specialist Research2Guidance.

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“Wireless health provides an unprecedented ability for monitoring and promotion of health and wellness for all individuals,” said UCLA Electrical Engineering Professor William Kaiser, who has studied how wireless health technologies can be used to track an individual’s fitness and health status and help identify potential risks and challenges.

“Studies show wireless health empowers people with information and guidance that can directly address the most important health concerns. The new Ford health and wellness connectivity solutions represent a fundamental advancement for these individuals,” Kaiser added, “providing them additional support and functionality during time spent in the vehicle.”

The Ford-Medtronic prototype is still being researched, so it’s unclear when the technology will be marketed, if at all. “Today it’s all about possibilities,” said Medtronic senior vice president James Dallas, adding, “There’s nothing formal yet, but the technology has reached a point where possibilities can become probabilities.”

“Diabetes in particular is a chronic disease where frequent monitoring of blood glucose levels throughout the day is critical… (So) by utilizing information technology and consumer electronic devices, we can help patients actively manage their health via access to real-time data on phones, hand-held devices or even in their cars,” said Dallas.

“Ford Sync is well known in the industry and with consumers as a successful in-car infotainment system, but we want to broaden the paradigm, transforming Sync into a tool that can help improve people’s lives as well as the driving experience,” said Paul Mascarenas, chief technology officer and vice president, Ford Research and Innovation. The Sync system offers three unique ways to bring health and wellness connected services into the car:

• Device connectivity via Bluetooth – Leveraging Bluetooth, medical devices can be connected to the car to share information through Sync, just like a driver connects and accesses his or her cellphone and address book by voice control

• Cloud-based services – Ford created an off-board network of location-based traffic, directions and information providers that drivers can simply access via their cellphone. Known as Sync Services, new services such as medical services can be easily added through this plug-and-play voice-controlled capability

• AppLink – Ford’s latest Sync innovation allows smartphone apps to be accessed by drivers via voice control. The Sync application programming interface (API) allows app developers to enable their apps to communicate through Sync, delivering a smarter way for drivers to manage apps while driving

Medtronic has led the way in continuous glucose monitoring, which records blood sugar levels throughout the day and night. The readings permit patients to make adjustments to insulin levels, often using a Medtronic insulin pump, or by ingesting sugar to coax levels back into normal territory, the basic idea behind the artificial pancreas project. “Ideally, we will get to a place where the sensor and pump communicate and when you get a reading, the pump automatically adjusts,” Medtronic spokesman Brian Henry said.

Some may regard this experimentation as yet another example of a company introducing a technology simply because they could, irrespective of expressed need from the marketplace. Ford disagrees and says that it’s a matter of time before this sort of service moves from the fantastical to the norm.

K. Venkatesh Prasad, a director in Ford’s vehicle design and infotronics division, told New York Times in a telephone interview: “For most people, drive time is private time…The car is the best time to listen to guidance for health and wellness.”

Anand K. Iyer, president of WellDoc, said in a telephone interview that if an app could accurately monitor the condition of diabetics and warn them, as well as health care providers, of a drop in blood sugar or the onset of insulin shock, improved driver safety and reduced insurance costs would result.

Sources: Ford Motor Co., Medtronic Inc., Janet Moore/Star Tribune

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