LAS VEGAS — As we’re all too painfully aware, health care costs have continued to rise precipitously in the US. While technology continues to make huge advances in healthcare in general, with few exceptions it has not contributed much to a reduction in cost in the delivery of health services. The reasons are complicated and deeply ingrained in the structure of the industry, but there’s some hope. Advances in inexpensive and powerful chip technology, cloud software platforms, and artificial intelligence are enabling creative new approaches to devices that empower people to better understand and monitor their health.
The innovation is coming not just from startups. Companies like Omron that have been making health monitoring devices for years are also leveraging the latest technology to bring increased intelligence and ease of use to their latest offerings. In much the same way that wearables like Fitbit and the Apple Watch have made it easier for people to monitor activity, sleep, and other health-related information, new devices are enabling users to be better informed about their vital signs and conditions, reducing visits to doctors and clinics unless it’s necessary. Applying technology that once was only available in expensive machines in a healthcare facility to consumer devices is also allowing users to manage pain and chronic conditions with less reliance on medications.
Here are a few of the innovative devices, products, and services we saw at CES that could help people take charge of their health, make better decisions, and potentially lead to better outcomes.
Managing Sinus Pain
Sinus pain from allergic rhinitis (hay fever) affects some 40-60 million people in the US. Depending on where one lives, allergy attacks can be seasonal, and in more extreme cases, some people are forced to limit their time outdoors. In some cases, the issues are year-round, based on allergies to pet dander, smoke, and certain fragrances. Over-the-counter and prescription drugs for allergy treatment are big business.
Startup Tivic Health has come up with a unique, non-invasive, and drug-free approach to relieve sinus pain. Their new ClearUp handheld, portable, and rechargeable device uses microcurrent waveforms to stimulate nerves alongside the nasal passages, alleviating stuffiness and the sinus pain from allergies. The device is designed to glide along the cheek, nose, and brow bone, delivering a safe, low current in a five-minute treatment. The ClearUp analyzes a person’s skin properties and uses light and vibration to guide the user to the facial points to apply the treatment. In the trial that Tivic conducted for the FDA approval, 74 percent of users achieved relief from their sinus pain. Tivic is planning to make the ClearUp available over the counter in mid-2019.
Relieving Chronic Pain
Managing pain from joints, backs, necks, and other areas is another problematic health care area. Drugs will mask pain by relieving the symptom, but not attacking the problem at the root. And while common drugs that reduce inflammation, both prescription and over-the-counter, may be effective in eventually clearing up inflammation, longer-term, chronic use of pain medications can be hard on the stomach and cause a variety of other problems.
Oska Wellness is another company using an electronic device for pain relief. Using Pulsed Electromagnetic Field (PEMF) technology that has been proven for 60 years in professional medical devices, the Oska Pulse targets distressed cells that generate the inflammation that causes pain. It targets four tissue types and delivers a unique series of pulses at precise frequencies that stimulate cell repair. As the cells repair themselves, circulation is improved and inflammation is reduced, resulting in lasting pain relief. In a randomized, double-blind study conducted at the Scripps Pain Institute in San Diego, a majority of patients reported a reduction in pain using the Pulse.
The opioid epidemic in the US has commanded national attention as a health crisis. While devices like the Oska Pulse will not solve that problem, it leads a path to drug-free, non-invasive, and non-addictive approaches to managing and curing pain.
Heart disease is one of the biggest health problems in America. The reasons are manifold, caused by poor diet, lack of exercise, unhealthy lifestyle, but also heredity. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a major factor in coronary artery disease, heart failure, atrial fibrillation, stroke, and other serious problems. Managing high blood pressure is critical, and is primarily done with drug treatment. However, as in so many things in health, increased knowledge is increased power. Blood pressure can be highly affected by activity and stress. Knowing when blood pressure spikes to unhealthy levels can help in managing the condition and improving heart health.
Omron has been making both professional and consumer devices for blood pressure measurement for many years. With the new HeartGuide, they have combined a clinically accurate blood pressure monitor into a smartwatch that can be worn all the time. Combined with the accompanying HeartAdvisor app, it makes continual blood pressure monitoring easy and helps analyze what types of activity and times of day spike blood pressure. As Omron notes, just taking blood pressure in a physician’s office at a checkup or once a day is not enough data to know what causes it. Often a stressful job or other situations make blood pressure go up beyond normal levels, while it may read perfectly normal at other times.
The HeartGuide also tracks steps, distance, and calories burned and can monitor sleep patterns as well. With continuous blood pressure monitoring, it can draw heretofore unavailable correlations between activity, time of day, and blood pressure. While it can’t directly treat hypertension, more data equates to more intelligence to enable users and medical professionals to manage a balanced treatment plan to avoid the risks from high blood pressure.
Intelligent Virtual Care
In the US, home health care is an expensive proposition. As people age and experience a reduction in mobility and other ailments, having someone to look after them becomes important. In past generations, families lived close to each other and elderly parents might live with children who helped to care for them. Today’s lifestyles have families scattered all over the country, and older people often move from longtime homes to more attractive retirement locales, making that model no longer feasible. The problem of caring for those who are aging remains, and often there’s a large middle ground between needing care and being ready for assisted living or a nursing home.
The cost of home health care is expensive. It’s almost prohibitive for most people to have a health professional visit a home every day, and even once a week is out of reach for many. Insurance coverage for home health care is limited except for the most extreme situations. Many in the elderly population prefer to stay in their own homes but may require moderate help. One area is in taking medication consistently, which is a huge issue in treating many chronic conditions. Taking the right dose, at the right time of day — and not forgetting — is a critical problem. For people that live by themselves, deterioration in movement and gait may be an unnoticed problem that could lead to a fall. The consequences of falling are serious, often leading to hospitalization, surgeries like hip replacement, and weeks of rehabilitation. A human that’s helping to take care of someone would note those changes over time, but someone looking in only occasionally doesn’t have the context whether the person’s movement and gait are normal or have changed rapidly.
Addison.care is a company applying modern communication technology, artificial intelligence, health vitals monitoring, and voice and visual assistant techniques to provide a virtual-care solution to these problems. Addison Care is almost like Amazon’s Alexa with a slew of added skills in nursing and home health care. Perhaps fittingly, it’s powered by Amazon’s AWS cloud platform. Addison Care is a virtual assistant that can monitor vitals like blood pressure and glucose levels, coach and observe people for medication management, offer support for the treatment of chronic conditions, and much more. The hardware will consist of a tabletop platform similar to Google Home or Amazon’s Echo show. It will have a camera that can observe and monitor normal movement, the taking of medications, and exercises or rehab activities that need to be done. Attached peripherals can monitor and track vital data like heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose monitoring if those are needed. It’s an ambitious take on using technology to provide needed care services in a more affordable and scalable manner.
Can technology help fix our expensive healthcare system? It can’t cure all the structural issues, but innovative new solutions like these can lead to new paths to spend our healthcare dollars more intelligently.