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The Future of Personal Health Care Is Digital, Exciting and Almost Here

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When you check in for a medical appointment, you are often handed a clipboard with a questionnaire. There are lines to fill and boxes to check, all to provide the doctor a snapshot of why you're there.

It makes sense. You know how you've been feeling, which medicines you've been taking and your medical history.

But as we approach 2014 and so much of our life is being digitized, shouldn't there be a faster, more-accurate way to deliver such important information?

What about taking the digital revolution to another level: Could doctors monitor our health remotely and let us know when we need to be examined?

I believe all this is possible, and I believe the shift is coming soon.

Personal medical technology may be the next big thing for both health care and our culture's love of gizmos and gadgets. The lifesaving potential of this crossroad is quite exciting, which is why I have invited one of the industry's visionaries -- Rick Valencia, the senior vice president and general manager of Qualcomm Life -- to guide you through it.


2013-12-13-RickValencia.jpgFor most of my life, I had a routine for paying bills. I sat at my desk, wrote check after check, put each in a stamped envelope and sent them on their way.

I can't remember the last time I wrote a check. And I hardly ever use stamps.

I've also stopped going to music stores -- stopped buying CDs entirely, in fact. Considering that iTunes has long since passed 25 billion song downloads, this is probably true for you, too.

We all still pay bills and buy music, of course, only differently than a few years ago because technology has provided better, easier options. The same is coming for the far-more-important areas of maintaining and improving your health.

Seeds are already taking root. Look around, maybe even at your own wrist. The rising popularity of wearable devices that track activity, sleep habits and other biometrics indicates that Americans are willing to take this from a trend to a new way of life.

The genie is out of the bottle in terms of what's possible.

We already have the ability to get information to the cloud quickly and easily, and for that information to then be analyzed and fed back to you in the form of what to do next for maintaining fitness, losing weight, keeping your glucose level in line and more. Here are some examples that might sound like science fiction, but either exist or are in the works:

  • A parent can take a picture of the inside of a child's ear, email it to a doctor and immediately get a diagnosis and, if necessary, a prescription emailed to the pharmacy. That sure beats scheduling an appointment, taking a screaming kid to the pediatrician's office, stopping at the pharmacy on the way home, handing the pharmacist a slip of paper and waiting.
  • An asthma inhaler with a sensor that uploads information with every dispensed puff. Feedback could include the likelihood of an asthma attack or alerts to air-quality issues in the area, based on your current location.
  • Another type of sensor could be injected into your blood stream, constantly reading for precursors to heart attacks. If it detects potential trouble, you'll get an alert on your phone.

If technology isn't the hold-up, what is?

The next domino that must tumble is getting the health care system to agree to find ways to bring these opportunities into their system. This is tougher than it may seem. Think of how slow the physician community was to switch "your file" from paper to a computer; many still haven't.

Once that corner is turned, doctors must engage patients in ways they like to interact.

Again, think back to online bill paying. First, companies set up their systems to accept such transactions. Then they offered them in ways that made us want to keep doing it. Personally, I eased into the process. I tried it, had a good experience, then tried a little more. Relatively quickly, I was all in.

So the burden here is on the innovators. They must develop solutions that people want to use -- people on both ends of the healthcare spectrum, doctors and patients.

Thousands of apps already are available. Yet none have separated themselves to become what Google is to Internet searches or what Facebook is to social media. That race is on.

An important thing to keep in mind is the incentive behind all this. It's not purely the altruism of making people healthier and living longer.

Employers and insurers are also motivated by money: The healthier you are, the lower the medical bills. Employers have the added lure of attendance and productivity. This is why proactive monitoring is so logical. If you have a disease or are trending toward it, you'll be closer to pre-emptive intervention. You could receive discounts for medicine you need, or you could earn rewards if you are trending toward better health. For my business, I'd rather invest in new ideas that can improve lives on the front end rather than paying for the consequences on the back end.

Let me leave you with one last real-world analogy: the latest generation of vehicles.

With a glance at the dashboard, you know exactly how much gas and oil is left; if you fail to notice, a light will let you know you're running low. Other readouts show how much air is in your tires, when it's time for routine maintenance and more. If you own such a vehicle, you have a better grip on your car's health than on your own health.

Here is how I envision personal medical technology catching up to the automobile industry.

A device -- perhaps the phone you already carry -- will calculate your weight, pulse, temperature, blood pressure, glucose level and more, then securely send that information to an app or website that provides a dashboard-like readout. The same data will be digitized in the cloud and analyzed via algorithms. These could prompt encouraging messages ("Your numbers look great today. Keep up the good work!") or alert you and/or your doctors of problems as they occur, or if they are on the horizon. If you already have a condition that's being monitored, alerts will go to your support team of caregivers, doctors and even pharmacists. Everyone will be connected and engaged, armed with the latest information.

This is the future of personal health care, filled with exciting options that are easier and better than what we've been doing. Because for all the conveniences and fun we get from the devices we carry, improving and saving lives may be their most important function.

Rick Valencia is Senior Vice President and General Manager of Qualcomm Life

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