"Patient empowerment is all about ensuring patients can be independent and can go about their daily lives in comfort, it's about not letting a disease constrain your life, about being able to go to work safe in the knowledge that if there are complications a health care professional is watching over you", explained MobiHealth co-ordinator Rainer Herzog at Ericsson Enterprise in Germany.
That empowerment of patients was brought a step closer to becoming reality by the MobiHealth project with the creation of a comprehensive monitoring system that is among the most advanced developed to date. "It's highly advanced in the sense that it provides continuous, automatic data collection and transmission in real-time", Rainer Herzog stated. "Other systems generally store the data and then have to synchronise it locally with the databases of health care workers."
At the heart of the MobiHealth system is what the project partners have termed a Body Area Network (BAN) comprised of wearable, non-intrusive sensors to monitor vital signs - everything from heart and breathing rates to oxygen saturation and muscular activity. "The network is very adaptable in that different sensors can be added to monitor different body functions depending on the patient's illness", the co-ordinator noted.
The sensors are connected via Bluetooth wireless technology to a Mobile Base Unit, in essence a programmable mobile phone or PDA, that then transmits the data over GPRS or UMTS to the patient's doctor or health care centre.
Evaluation testing in 2003 showed the stability and effectiveness of the MobiHealth system as well as the feasibility of it being used in a wide range of medical fields. In trials in The Netherlands, for example, the system was used with trauma patients and pregnant women; in Sweden it was used to keep track of respiration and physical activity; in Germany to monitor cardiac patients; and in Spain it was tested in rehabilitation and homecare scenarios.
"The trials validated the feasibility of the system, not only from a technological and medical viewpoint but also in terms of acceptability", Rainer Herzog stated. "Almost everyone involved - patients and doctors - agreed that the system offered significant advantages. Patients particularly liked being monitored, with many saying that it gave them peace of mind and encouraged them to do more activities, while doctors saw that they could improve quality of care while reducing the workload."
In an extension of the project's original goals, the partners have also set about creating a "powerful analytical tool" to process the raw data received from the system and present it to health care workers in an "easy to use" format.
From the point of view of health care providers mobile health techniques will prove essential in the future if Europe's overburdened national public health systems are to reduce costs while maintaining standards. By providing patients with remote monitoring services they do not necessarily need to take up a hospital bed or visit their doctor everyday, but will still receive the same or an even better quality of care.
That is the central premise behind the market areas being studied by the project partners for a commercial application of their system. "We are currently targeting the system toward four market areas that would be able to make the most out of MobiHealth initially", Rainer Herzog noted. "People with chronic diseases, such as heart disease and asthma; people at risk, such as women with high-risk pregnancies; patients who have been hospitalised for surgery and who can be kept under observation remotely rather than keeping them in for monitoring in a hospital bed; and the pharmaceutical industry, where the system could be used to reduce the time and cost of clinical trials for drugs."
The project co-ordinator also pointed to the potential for MobiHealth to be employed to monitor the elderly and disabled, given that the BAN can include a panic alarm and a "drop alarm" which will alert health care workers if a patient falls down and remains immobile. "We've also included a localisation system based on triangulation between mobile relay antennas to allow emergency services to locate a patient in need", Rainer Herzog noted.
The project partners are due to perform further evaluations of MobiHealth this year in order to gain authorisation for the technology from European health authorities with the aim of having a commercial system available in the first half of 2006.
For more information you can contact Rainer Herzog, Head of Healthcare, Ericsson Enterprise AB, Maximilianstrasse 36/RG, D-80539 Munich, Germany, Tel.: +49-89-25543715 or visit the Mobihealth project Web site. This article was reprinted from the IST Results Web site. More details on Mobihealth are available in the VMW October 2003 article EC project MobiHealth launches field trial phase in four European countries.