Third in a series of reports on biomedical engineering innovations
It might not be politic to compare people to cattle, but for the moment bovines are ahead of humans in the use of wireless technology for remote health monitoring. Cows in Britain, and now in the United States, are being equipped with wireless under-the-skin electronic sensor packages, costing about US $100, that monitor heartbeat, temperature, and other signs of impending mad cow disease. Sure, few people would want such an intrusive watch on their vitals, but that just might be what's needed to keep the next generation of older people living longer on their own.
And it will be quite a generation. The worldwide population of those over 65 is predicted to reach 761 million by 2025, more than double what it was in 1990. Assuming current trends continue, this century will see the first time in human history that the old outnumber the young.
Meeting the needs of those with the chronic diseases of aging--heart disease, Alzheimer's, and so forth--is a labor-intensive chore we increasingly cannot afford. Health care consumes 15 percent of the U.S. gross national product, up from 5 percent in 1960. In Japan and Europe, which manage care more frugally, the share has in most cases already passed the 10 percent mark. And the numbers continue to rise. We will have to find clever ways to economize on labor, the most expensive element in health care. "General practitioners and other front-line health care people are overwhelmed; they haven't got time for patients, and the vast majority would welcome relief from some well-chosen, well-placed technology," says Philippe M. Fauchet, an electrical engineer and director of the Center for Future Health at the University of Rochester, in New York. He and others are betting that information gleaned from our increasingly networked world will be a big part of the solution.
Manufacturers of pacemakers are already beaming out data from the devices in the hope of picking up early trouble signs, so as to keep people out of the hospital. Meanwhile, electronics giants are working to pepper the home with a network of wirelessly linked sensors slapped on nearly everything from coffee cups to bathroom doors. They are learning to probe the network remotely to monitor patients with dementia and other ills of aging and use the information to help the patients' families care for them. The next generation of older people may live in a world where every beat of their hearts and every ordinary thing they do is watched, analyzed, and evaluated for signs of trouble. Orwellian as it may seem, such care may actually be less intrusive than the alternative: the loss of independence that follows when people must leave their own homes for nursing homes.
Wireless remote monitoring of older people could be a big market, and a group of high-tech heavyweights is trying to jump-start it. Companies including General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell, and Intel have teamed up in the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST), in Washington, D.C., established in 2002 to encourage collaborative aging-related technology development and advocate for such technology with the U.S. government. Eric Dishman, chairman of CAST and Intel's director of proactive health research, says that Intel's immediate focus is on the use of electronic devices to handle cognitive decline, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, which together cost the U.S. economy some $600 billion a year, if you include estimates of lost productivity. Intel's idea is to deduce the actions of older people in their homes through a network of wireless sensors and use that information to help patients comply with doctors' orders, enable remote caregiving by family and friends, and detect early signs of disease and prevent its progression.
The key technology, according to Dishman, will be tiny battery-powered sensors called motes. These sensors, being developed at the University of California, Berkeley, and Crossbow Technology Inc., in San Jose, Calif., organize themselves into a wireless network, sharing data with one another and with computers. Currently, each mote is about as big as a matchbox, but engineers are working to make them small enough to be unobtrusively integrated into everything from sneakers to coffee cups [ see illustration].