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What people have come to expect in cell phones and personal communicators may soon become common in health-care devices and products at home and in medical offices, thanks to new technology announced recently by the University of Florida and IBM.
The technology creates the first-ever roadmap for widespread commercial development of "smart" devices that, for example, take a person's blood pressure, temperature or respiration rate the minute a person steps into his or her house -- then transmit it immediately and automatically to doctors or family.
That could eliminate the need for many doctor's visits, which are often difficult for the elderly or sick. By enabling regular updates via text message or e-mail, the technology also could pave the way for people to share real-time information on their health or well-being with absent loved ones. And it could prove useful for doctors who need to keep tabs on many patients at one time by helping the doctors to prioritize whom to treat first.
"We call it quality-of-life engineering," said Sumi Helal, professor of computer engineering and the project's lead UF researcher. "It's really a change of mindset."
The idea of using technology to provide medical care at a distance is nothing new. Doctors have relied on "telemedicine" to communicate with specialists for years. More recently, telemedicine has been expanded to include, for example, surgeons performing robotic procedures on distant patients.
But the UF-IBM advance goes a step further: It provides the technological "stepstones" to make it easy for any company to manufacture and sell smart networked devices -- while also making them more user-friendly for consumers.
"UF and IBM both see the need and the opportunity to integrate the physical world of sensors and other devices directly into enterprise systems," said Richard Bakalar, Chief Medical Officer for IBM. "Doing so in an open environment will remove market inhibitors that impede innovation in critical industries like health care and open a broader device market that's fueled by uninterrupted networking."
Helal has devoted the past several years to developing smart devices for the elderly in a model home known as the "Gator Tech Smart Home" in Gainesville.
He and his students pioneered the "Smart Wave" microwave oven that can automatically determine how much time to cook a frozen meal or keep track of how much salt it contains. Among other devices, they also created an instrument that records how many steps a person takes, information that can tell absent caregivers how active its occupants are.
But these and other devices currently have a major shortcoming: They require "a team of engineers" to install them, Helal said. In a world where consumers are accustomed to electronics that require no more than a power outlet, that dramatically limits their appeal. "We decided to create a technology that self integrates," Helal said. "When you bring it in to the house and plug it in, it automatically provides its service and finds a path to the outside world."
With $60,000 in research funding from IBM, Helal designed "middleware," or software and hardware that glues together different systems, that can give his and any similar health-aid devices this independence and connectivity. Importantly, the software is based on open standards, or publicly available specifications useable by anyone, such as those now being made available by consortiums of technology companies including Eclipse, W3C and OSGi.
Open standards make it easy for product developers to tap the technology in any new smart assistive devices, Helal said. That, in turn, will make the devices more common.
The hardware component of the system is an inexpensive sensor platform about half the size of a business card. Developed at UF and licensed to Pervasa, a Gainesville-based UF spinoff company headed by Helal, the "Atlas" platform makes it easy to create a network of sensors and make their information available on a computer network.
The advance is crucial given the increasing number of elderly Americans. The number of people 85 and over is expected to rise from 4.2 million in 2000 to 6.1 million in 2010 and 9.6 million by 2030, according to federal government statistics. Meanwhile, the percentage of older Americans living alone will either remain high or continue to grow: About half of women and nearly a quarter of men aged 75 and older currently live alone.
But the UF-IBM technology may also prove useful in many other medical settings. For example, Helal said, it could help emergency rooms operate more safely. Rather than a standard waiting list, patients could be equipped with networked wireless monitors of their vital signs, allowing doctors to determine who in a waiting room needs the most immediate care.
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