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AT&T, Other Firms Test Devices To Track Patient Progress

Physicians, hospitals, and high-technology companies such as AT&T Inc. are so eager about a new generation of devices that let medical professionals track patient progress. Long-term treatments for diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic diseases work only if patients care for themselves properly. These wireless devices automatically send physicians stats that people already measure – weight, blood pressure, etc.

These wireless devices automatically send physicians stats that people already measure – weight, blood pressure, etc. – so doctors can intervene at the first sign of trouble rather than waiting till patients feel bad enough to seek help.

The Department of Veterans Affairs already uses such telehealth technology on 35,000 patients.

Now, private health groups – working with insurers, universities and technology manufacturers – have begun tests that could lead to widespread deployment over the next couple of years.

A lot of this is old technology, said Bob Miller, executive director of AT&T’s communications-technology research department. But we’re putting it together in ways that will help millions of people live dramatically better lives.

The old technology in question includes thermometers, scales and blood-pressure cuffs. Even the wireless data transfer relies largely on established systems, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, that have been changed to save power.

Combined, however, these old technologies make something new.

Physicians can suddenly see – and confront – daily fluctuations in vital indicators. If, for example, a hypertensive patient’s blood pressure begins to rise, his physician can check whether he’s eating properly or taking his pills. If patient behavior doesn’t clarify the problem, the doctor can change the treatment, observe the effect in real time and tweak as necessary.

Such early interventions could prevent many of the acute attacks that gradually transform a functional person into an invalid. They may also help save society from financing costly emergency room visits and other intensive treatments.

Many patients struggle to follow complex treatment regimes, said David Whitlinger, president of the Continua Health Alliance, a technology industry consortium that develops and promotes open standards for medical devices.

After each serious problem, they vow to stay healthy, but eventually they slip up and begin a downward spiral that ends in the emergency room. Then the cycle begins again.

It’s incredibly dangerous for patients and incredibly expensive for everyone else – and now we think we can stop the cycle by enabling doctors to nip problems in the bud.

AT&T Inc. is Dallas-based technology company.