When I first heard about Bluetooth inhalers, I visualized some fancy, high-tech, hand-held product with lots of flashing bells and whistles. This new product turned out to not be nothing like that. It is actually an add-on device that attaches to a patient’s regular inhaler, however, it connects wirelessly to a smartphone.
What peaked my interest in this product? This past flu-season was a doozy for me. I struggled with a bad case of bronchitis for most of February, only to be taken down again with pollen and dust allergies in March. Not only did I succumb to using a nasal spray, I was also given a rescue inhaler just in case. For those suffering from asthma attacks and other respiratory infections, a smart device like this one that fits on top of a regular inhaler can collect data that will help both users and healthcare professionals better understand how one is using the rescue medicine. It may also provide some insights into what triggers these attacks.
The idea behind the Bluetooth inhaler was to supplement medicine with technology. The maker of the add-on device, Propeller Health, has wired an inhaler with a blue-tooth transmitter to communicate with an asthma patient’s smartphone. This sensor activates when the inhaler is pressed, setting into motion a process that records the exact time and location of a patient’s asthma attack on a smartphone app. Doctors can view this data and see not only how frequently the patient suffers attacks, but also decipher the environmental factors that caused the distress.
There is so much potential for a device or sensor of this type! And there is definitely a tie to the future of technology, medicine and healthcare. Smart inhalers are part of an emerging trend in medical technology known as “connected health.” The Propeller sensor also sets out to manage medication schedules. “On average, less than 50 percent of asthma patients take their medicine correctly,” says Linda Neuhauser, a professor at University of California, Berkeley who researches asthma treatments.
“Asthma causes about 4,000 deaths per year in the United States, and the consensus is that virtually each was preventable with appropriate treatment,” says David Van Sickle, a medical anthropologist who specializes in respiratory disease and the inventor of the Propeller sensor. “Yet there are hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and millions of ER visits. These are treatment failures that should never occur.” [Ref 1]
One current drawback to using the device may be its cost. The Propeller sensor has a unit cost of approximately $300, and that does not include the cost of the average albuterol inhaler. One more thing, the Propeller sensor is only available through a handful of health plans and sponsors. It is typically prescribed by a doctor. [Ref 2]
Think of the add-on device as a management tool. Making better use of the current medicine and tools that are already being used to treat asthma can help to bring the condition under control by preventing symptoms and flare ups. This product is definitely a game changer because of its ability to collect medical data at the micro- and macro-levels. It could change the way that some clinical trials and medical studies are conducted in the future.
Van Sickle also adds that the direct and indirect costs of asthma alone in the United States are estimated at $56 billion annually. Given this hefty cost of treatment, $300 per unit appears less costly by comparison.
- Marriage made in heaven: Digital inhaler add-on offers slick aid to asthma care, by David Tenenebaum in University of Wisconsin-Madison News, April 19, 2017, http://news.wisc.edu/marriage-made-in-heaven-digital-inhaler-add-on-offers-slick-aid-to-asthma-care/
- Asthma patients breather easier with new Bluetooth inhalers, by Andrew Wagner for the PBS NewsHour, March 10, 2017, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/asthma-patients-breathe-easier-new-bluetooth-inhalers/