National Science Foundation awards $1,5 million for study of in-home health care via wireless networks

Houston 24 April 2008Rice University, The Methodist Hospital Research Institute and Technology For All (TFA) have received a $1,5 million federal grant for research in east Houston that will examine ways to provide novel, low-cost, personalized health monitoring to people with chronic diseases living in working-class communities. The researchers plan to examine how patients with chronic diseases use inexpensive handheld wireless monitoring devices called Blue Boxes, to participate actively in their own medical treatment. The National Science Foundation (NSF) grant will pay for the development and testing of the Blue Boxes and the wireless broadband network that will connect the devices to a central source for analysis.

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The project brings together wireless researchers from Rice, chronic health care researchers and decision scientists at The Methodist Hospital Research Institute's and University of Houston's Abramson Center for the Future of Health, and experts from TFA, a Houston non-profit that operates the TFA-Wireless network in east Houston's Pecan Park. The Abramson Center is a collaboration between The Methodist Hospital Research Institute and the University of Houston's College of Technology.

"Our development of a low-cost, easy to use, handheld health monitoring device called the Blue Box makes personalized health care much more accessible to all patients with chronic illness", stated Dr. Clifford Dacso, the John S. Dunn Sr. Research Chair in internal medicine at The Methodist Hospital and executive director of the Abramson Center, a co-principal investigator on the project. "Combining the Blue Box technology with an existing wireless network is designed to allow people with chronic illnesses to fine-tune their health, thus avoiding preventable deterioration that may result in emergency care. It's much easier on the patient and provides them with higher quality, very personal care."

The NSF funding will enable the Abramson Center to design and manufacture Blue Box devices that will help patients with congestive heart failure, asthma or metabolic syndrome to participate more actively in their chronic disease care. On at least a daily basis, people can employ the device to simply, painlessly and non-invasively take stock of several key aspects of their health status.

The device compares the patient's current markers with the patient's own history of these readings, thus providing true "personalized" information. The wireless component allows the Blue Box to rapidly update and display useful information that is easy for the patient to understand. Because markers for chronic disease are measured every day, rather than only during physician visits or crises, the investigators hope to provide the patient with an early warning of decline. When caught earlier, symptoms can be managed more easily, improving quality of life.

"Our network in Pecan Park is a first-of-its-kind research platform", stated Ed Knightly, professor of electrical and computer engineering and principal investigator on the project. "We are supporting more than 4000 users in three square kilometers with a fully programmable wireless infrastructure. This allows us to demonstrate our research advances at an operational scale."

TFA-Wireless is a broadband wireless network that provides free, high-speed Internet service in Pecan Park, a neighbourhood on Houston's east side. TFA-Wireless uses a multi-tier and multi-hop wireless "mesh" networking technology that involves dozens of interconnected wireless transmitters throughout the neighbourhood. Anyone with a wireless-enabled computer can use the network, and registered users get faster service.

When TFA-Wireless users log into the network, they connect to just one of the wireless transmitters in the neighbourhood. These transmitters, which are called nodes, pass information between one another, relaying all data to and from a central hub. The term mesh refers to the fact that data sometimes uses multiple wireless relay nodes before it finds its way to the wired hub.

Mesh networks use different technology than the WiFi hot spots typically found at coffee shops and other businesses. Ed Knightly said the mesh system is cheaper to operate than traditional technology, but the technology needed to obtain the desired performance-cost profile is experimental. Beginning in 2003, Ed Knightly's student, Joseph Camp, led the effort to design and architect the TFA network in order to develop and test "mesh" technology that could one day provide WiFi to whole cities.

"When we started this project with Dr. Knightly we had no idea that it would lead medical researchers, anthropologists and others scientists to take such a keen interest in Pecan Park", stated TFA President and CEO Will Reed. "Our community isn't the typical, well-to-do neighbourhood where this kind of technology would typically be rolled out. As a result, people are knocking down our door to find out how our residents are using the network, what they think of it and how it's affecting them."


Leslie Versweyveld

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