Intel tries its hand at home health care market

Remember all the fanfare three years ago when Intel CEO Paul Otellini suggested digital health might be one of the chipmaker's best big growth opportunities‾ You're forgiven if you don't, since very little news has trickled out of Intel exec Louis Burns' Digital Health Group since then.

Now Intel appears to be jumping aboard in a big way. The company on Monday formally took the wraps off its own branded home health care monitoring device and accompanying services package.

The device, called the Intel Health Guide, is an FDA-cleared touch-screen pc that's meant for use only for home health care. It connects to off-the-shelf devices that can read your blood pressure, heart rate and other vital statistics, then reports back through an Internet connection the results to health care providers. Patients also can use the device to grab licensed content from the Mayo Clinic, American Heart Association and others. Doctors or nurses also can schedule video calls to followup on results.

Otellini announced at a conference that the device is being tested in small pilot projects by a number of providers, including Aetna, Scan Health Plan and Providence Medical Group in Oregon. The device would be sold to these groups rather than sold directly to consumers.

Burns in a briefing last week noted that the number of Baby Boomers beginning to suffer from chronic diseases is growing exponentially. With a growing shortage of care-givers around the world, health care providers are frantically looking for new ways to manage these numbers.

Intel hopes to profit by building the hardware and software for monitoring devices, and it's even offering to host services that would monitor the information as it comes in. It's a complicated and expensive proposition, but finally one that could jump-start the market.

The value add is the software, which is used as a sort of digital triage and early warning device for doctors and nurses, flagging the patients that need immediate follow-up because of a looming medical crisis.

Tech companies for close to a decade have been jumping on the digital health bandwagon, only to jump off again after finding progress slow-going. Johnson & Johnson and consumer electronics giant Philips are two other companies that are pursuing home monitoring, but along the more traditional routes of medical alerts, "phone visits" and hospital tech tools.

Intel's approach combines both telehealth and telemedicine and could one day to extended to all manner of devices, including smartphones, netbooks and laptops.

The chipmaker's chief ethnographer, Eric Dishman, says the next step might be adding accelerometer technology that might sense when elderly patients are walking unsteadily, helping save billions in expenses from fall-related injuries. The company also is working on context-aware sensing that might warn a person they haven't taken their medications before leaving the house.

It's nifty stuff, and timely. It won't go anywhere, however, until governments, particularly the U.S. government, tackle the issue of patient reimbursements for these novel "virtual" visits. Doctors have been reluctant to make the move unless they get paid, so it's a deeply rooted issue the new administration, in addition to the current financial meltdown, would be wise to have high on its agenda next year.


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