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Flu Season Turns the Spotlight on mHealth, Telehealth Advances

Healthcare providers are turning to digital health tools and connected care platforms to diagnose flu patients before they leave home and reduce stress on crowded clinics and ERs. Researchers, too, are getting into the act.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Just in time for flu season, researchers at the University of Texas in Arlington are reportedly developing an mHealth device that would specifically test for the flu virus.

The device is similar to a breathalyzer, reports Perena Gouma, a professor at the university and lead researcher in the study. Sensors inside the device test the breath sample for nitric oxide and ammonia, two biomarkers common to a flu diagnosis.

"I think that technology like this is going to revolutionize personalized diagnostics,” Gouma, whose study is published in the January 2017 edition of Sensors, told the Indian website “This will allow people to be proactive and catch illnesses early, and the technology can easily be used to detect other diseases, such as Ebola virus disease, simply by changing the sensors.”

Gouma’s work is similar to that being done at the Israel Institute of Technology, where researchers are working on a breathalyzer that tests for 17 different diseases, ranging from cancer to multiple sclerosis. That device uses a nanoparticle sensor array to collect volatile compounds in the breath sample, then uses artificial intelligence to match the “breathprint” against a database of disease samples.

Gouma told she wants to develop a single-use device that’s inexpensive and can be sold in pharmacies and other commercial locations.

"Before we applied nanotechnology to create this device, the only way to detect biomarkers in a person's breath was through very expensive, highly-technical equipment in a lab, operated by skilled personnel,” she said. “Now, this technology could be used by ordinary people to quickly and accurately diagnose illness."

While the device would help consumers determine whether they had the flu before visiting the doctor, it would also help healthcare providers faced with crowded waiting rooms and ERs.

Faced with epidemic levels of flu cases, hospitals across North America are looking for ways to diagnose and treat patients before they reach the doctor.

In Washington, where health officials have reported 24 deaths and emergency departments at or near capacity, Seattle-based UW Medicine is advising residents to consider using the health system’s telehealth platform.

“This is a faster, more convenient, and oftentimes much cheaper option than coming to the urgent care or emergency department,” John Scott, MD, the health system’s medical director for telehealth services, told KOMO News.

Health officials in hard-hit Ontario, where hospitals are reporting a more-than-so-percent increase in ER traffic, are also advising residents to use telehealth.

In Oregon, flu season coincided with harsh winter weather, forcing health officials to rely more heavily on telehealth to treat sick and snowbound patients. Kaiser Permanente Northwest, which has been training providers on its telehealth platform for a year, reported increased traffic in January. And Portland-based Oregon Health & Science University is conducting hundreds of telehealth visits, according to Oregon Live.

While telehealth may be helping now, healthcare is looking to mHealth for the future. Aside from the mobile devices being developed at the University of Texas and in Israel, Australia-based ResApp Health Unlimited is testing a smartphone-based sensor in three U.S. health systems that can diagnose coughs.

“Respiratory issues are the single largest (healthcare condition) for which you need in-person medical care,” Brian Leedman, ResApp’s co-founder, told last year. “Right now you need to be in front of a doctor to be diagnosed. This would change that.”

Those clinical tests will be crucial. Just recently, the U.S. Food and Trade Commission came down hard on two mHealth vendors for sensors and apps that promised to accurately measure blood pressure and blood-alcohol content, but aren’t living up to that promise.

“Advances in algorithms linked to sound clinical data truly hold the promise of innovative healthcare benefits to consumers. However, it’s especially important to remember that any type of health-related claim must be backed up by competent and reliable scientific evidence, and that information suggesting that the apps are inaccurate or degrade need to be communicated to consumers,” Sheila A. Miller, an attorney with Keller and Heckman, LLP, recently wrote in Lexology. “Companies that produce health-related apps need to take these obligations very much to heart. If they don’t, they may just be in for some big headaches.”


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