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Heart Health and the Digital Revolution

The digital revolution has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives. Smartphones connect us to others and to the Internet 24 hours a day. Online social networks let us interact with far flung people and communities. And electronic sensors help us personalize the way we operate cars, cameras, air conditioners, audio systems and countless other devices with which we interact.

As we mark Heart Month in February, we have an opportunity to reflect on how wireless technology is changing the way we practice medicine and deliver health care, particularly in the area of cardiology.

The recent introduction of numerous novel devices for wireless monitoring strongly suggests that significant changes are in store for the heart patient of the future. Sensors linked to wireless transmitters will collect vast amounts of data. Smartphone apps will process the information, delivering personalized results that tell the patient to contact a physician for an adjustment in medication. In some situations, the technology might even be able to generate an advanced warning of a heart attack, providing opportunity to seek medical help before the crisis unfolds.

In order to fully realize the promise of these changes, physicians and health systems will need to integrate that individualized health data with electronic medical record systems. The health industry has never been known for speedy innovation, so there’s little surprise that this process is moving slowly.

However, there are some encouraging signs. For example, when Scripps Health opens its new Prebys Cardiovascular Institute in March in San Diego, the 167-bed heart hospital will include a universal wireless network designed to treat the movement of wireless data like any other building utility. The secure system will accommodate all types of devices, including those belonging to patients and visitors.

For some patients, the future is now. In a recent report in the journal Circulation, my colleagues and I reviewed 29 existing cardiac monitoring devices that track a wide range of vital signs and the heart’s electrical pulse (electrocardiogram), monitor heart failure conditions, and produce real-time ultrasound images of the heart.

Here are some highlights from that report:

    • Heart arrhythmias are fairly common and treatable conditions, but left undetected they can pose a range of threats, such as a higher risk of stroke or even sudden cardiac death. The Alivecor and ECG Check use finger-contact sensors that wirelessly deliver an electrocardiogram to a smartphone. The data can be viewed on the phone or sent to a physician.
    • The wristband styled Sotera ViSi mobile system provides a wide range of real-time non-invasive vital signs monitoring, including blood pressure. That’s a leap for most hospitals, where vital signs of even the most critically ill patients are reported to physicians only on an hourly basis in the intensive care unit.
    • Breath analysis has emerged as one of the most exciting new areas of wireless health technology. Recent research suggests that a “breathprint” composed of the volatile organic compounds contained in each exhalation can change in a measurable way with the severity of heart disease. Vantage is one of the companies currently developing a breath analysis platform using wireless sensors.

The great promise of wireless health technology is the delivery of higher quality and more personalized care that should result in better outcomes. Cardiology patients stand to benefit from these advances as much as any others.


Steven Steinhubl, M.D., is a cardiologist and director of digital medicine at Scripps Health, a nonprofit integrated health system based in San Diego.