A chip that's good for your body

A doctor cares for a patient at a hospital in Panorama City, Calif.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: There are billions of dollars in the stimulus plan going into health care. Electronic health care, to be more precise. Along those lines Kaiser Permanente published two studies in the journal "Health Affairs" today. Both doctors and patients inside the Kaiser system who were asked about it said online patient records worked out pretty well for them. The prospect of somebody who shouldn't be getting their hands on your electronic records has always been the big bugaboo. But now patients can carry their data around with them. Computer chips are in just about everything these days. Including us. And that makes it possible for doctors to track vital signs and medical conditions without so much as an office visit. Marketplace's Caitlan Carroll reports that the future of the wired patient could be pretty healthy.


CAITLAN CARROLL: Like a lot of heart patients, Robert Biller has a defibrillator implanted in his heart that controls its rhythm. But his defibrillator is special. It has a chip that records his heart's activity and then sends it off electronically to his doctor.

ROBERT BILLER: And when it comes time to do a reading I just take out the microphone, plug this into a telephone jack, put the microphone on my heart, and turn the machine on.

Biller waits for the light to turn green. That means his device has finished uploading all the data it's collected since the last time he plugged in. The information goes to a Web site where his cardiologist can review what Biller's heart has been up to for the past few weeks. And that is the old technology.

LESLIE SAXON: Now it's completely different. There are about, I would guess, nearly a half million patients with networked-implanted devices and the newest generation uses cellular technology so there's no connection. There's no use of the phone line.

That's Leslie Saxon. Biller's doctor and head of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Southern California. Those "networked devices" she's talking about are instruments that let doctors monitor patients remotely and over time. Saxon says these round-the-clock readings provide a much fuller picture of a patient's health.

SAXON: It sort of takes the artificial out of medical care meaning that we see a patient, we get a snapshot in time. And we get some data. But we really don't get sense of how that patient's doing in their daily life.

Medical companies are pouring money into the technology. They're already making scales, blood pressure cuffs and insulin pumps that relay information to your doctor. And there's some sci-fi stuff in the works. Like "smart pills" that transmit reports as they travel through the body. And pill boxes that will text you if grandma skips her medication.

Greg de Lissovoy is a health economist and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University.

GREG DE LISSOVOY: Technology tends to bubble along for quite a while and then all of sudden forces come together, and it starts gaining traction and that's where we are right now in this technology.

And moving fast. There's $20 billion of stimulus money for creating a national system of electronic health records. IBM and Google are developing software that will let patients put information from their portable medical devices into their records. That way patients' data can travel with them doctor to doctor. But there are kinks to be worked out.

LISSOVOY: I think the organizational barriers are one of the major issues. I mean this is a new way to practice medicine.

Privacy and training are huge issues. And there needs to be a system for paying doctors when they monitor patients online. Also, this technology might not save money. The more health problems portable devices pick up, the more treatment patients could require. But UCLA Health Policy Professor Gerald Kominski says early diagnosis could help people live longer.

GERALD KOMINSKI: And that often is the case in health care that we end up getting better outcomes but in order to do that we have to spend more. It's difficult to find lost of good examples of true cost-saving technologies.

For now, the true savings may come down to time and peace of mind for patients like Biller.

BILLER: It doesn't eliminate the need for occasional contact with the medical care professionals but it certainly reduces the frequency of that and increases the confidence of the patient.

So no matter where he is, Biller knows that his doctor can follow every beat of his heart.

In Los Angeles, I'm Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.

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