A doctor friend once told me the best thing I could do for my health with my gadgets – was turn them off. That was before smartphones came packed with more processing power than a NASA spaceship, putting tens of thousands of potentially life-saving health and wellness tools right at our fingertips.
The Apple Watch makes headlines fairly often these days for detecting falls and calling 911, and helping to detect heart arrhythmias. Smartphones too, get credit for everything from helping a man survive 65 hours buried in rubble after an earthquake to stopping bullets, with thousands of less dramatic – yet still incredible – life-saving instances in between. Here are a few of the latest examples.
Medication adherence: A tough pill to swallow
Modern medicine’s come a long way in helping people with chronic illness manage and maintain happy, healthy and long lives – with one main caveat. You have to take the pills your doctor prescribes – often on a schedule – and that can be a whole lot harder than it sounds.
Medication non-adherence is an estimated $500 billion dollar problem in the United States and costs more than $100 billion a year in excess hospitalizations, according to nonprofit group Network for Excellence in Health Innovation (NEHI), which researches ways to improve health care. Around one-third of people never fill their prescriptions and three out of four Americans do not take their medications as directed.
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“If my son takes all 14 of his pills at approximately the same time every day – half in the morning and half at night – he can work and go to school and lead a normal life,” says 51-year old single mom Jennifer (who asked we not use her family’s last name) from her home in Wisconsin. “But if he misses even one dose, he can’t function, he can barely put one foot in front of the other.”
Jennifer says her 19-year old son, Sean, is on the autism spectrum, with a diagnosis of severe inattentive ADHD, anxiety and depression. She credits a $50 automatic pill dispenser called Hero, along with its $30 a month medication management system, refill reminders and 24/7 live support for “giving us our lives back.”
“I saw an ad for it on Facebook one day and thought, ‘What do I have to lose?’” she recalls. Before she bought the device, Jennifer says her life revolved around making sure her son took his medicine by following him to work or his friends homes or making mad dashes to his schools. She also had to juggle revolving refills. Some medications have to be refilled every 30 days, while others come in a three or six-month supply. The amount of work and oversight it all took was incredibly stressful.
“It’s been our actual hero – a real game-changer for us,” she enthused. “It’s allowed Sean to have the independence he craves and it’s given me and my 15-year old daughter – my backup helping care for Sean – our lives back. I used to wonder if he would ever be able to live by himself and was so worried about what would happen to him.”
Hero is a countertop – or in Sean’s case, a bedside – device about the size of a small coffee maker. Jennifer said that an alarm on the device wakes Sean up every morning, “and is so loud, he can’t sleep through it.”
Hero also stores, sorts and dispenses up to a 90-day supply of 10 different medications. You can pour pills into a cartridge and slide them into the dispenser without having to count or sort anything – it’s all automatic. Hero detects when you’re running low on a particular drug and sends notifications through an app to refill. The company also provides a service called Hero Fill, which can automatically order another prescription and deliver it to your home.
Hero’s companion app (available for iOS and Android) sends alerts when it’s time to take a dose and provides real-time adherence data to caregivers and families looking after their loved ones.
I went hands-on with Hero when it first launched three years ago and again last week. One of my only complaints is that you have to set it all up with arrows, sort of like older versions of smart TV remotes, versus the simpler push-to-program touchscreen.
When I asked Jennifer if that part bothered her, she said, “Up and down arrows, who cares? It doesn’t bother me at all. That’s such a simple thing compared to what we went through before spending hours every Sunday sorting pills, physically chasing after and nagging Sean, the amounts of charts and processes trying to manage it and never really knowing how many he took or missed. This is a miracle compared to all of that.”
There are also free apps such as MediSafe (for iOS and Android) that help people manage medication adherence. You can program MediSafe to deliver reminders and log when you’ve taken a pill. It also helps people stay connected with their physician or caregivers with real-time missed medication alerts and helps people with drug interaction warnings.
Skin cancer: Early detection and tracking
Emily Riggs, a Minneapolis-based electrical engineer and mom of two, was just 34 years old when she noticed a “different looking” mole on her back.
“I saw it and just had a sense of dread,” Riggs said over the phone. “It wasn’t 100% out of left field. I had an uncle I was close with diagnosed with a late stage of melanoma and he, unfortunately, didn’t live much longer after the diagnosis.”
Riggs had also just moved to a new town, but says she “started Googling dermatologists and was lucky to get an appointment right away.”
Sure enough, the suspicious spot was melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer that can spread to other organs rapidly if not treated at an early stage.
“There was a little bit of a feeling like ‘This will never happen to me.’ Like what are the odds? I mean, life is so busy and it’s just not something top-of-mind. It was really scary,” Riggs recalls.
Her new dermatologist successfully operated and removed the melanoma and she’s remained cancer-free for two years. Still, Riggs sees her dermatologist, Dr. Margareth Pierre-Louis, every three months and uses an app the doctor recommended called Miiskin to track skin changes and share hi-res photos securely to the medical team between visits.
“I take the photos on the Miiskin app and she sees them on her end. It helps me manage those days and weeks in-between visits and helps manage my worry because I have more control. This is something just so obvious in modern times and makes so much sense.”
Miiskin, which I first reported on last year, uses machine learning, computer vision and augmented reality to help track skin conditions. It’s not meant to diagnose, but rather help keep a close eye on any changes – no matter how subtle – to share with your dermatologist or physician.
Miiskin recently launched AI-assisted face-tracking to manage – and follow the evolution and treatment of–skin conditions including possible skin cancers, acne and rosacea, as well as more aesthetic problems such as receding hairlines. This is especially noteworthy because most apps in the medical aesthetics and beauty industries exist as simple try-on tools, such as hair and makeup apps.
You can use the free basic version or unlock all the advanced features with Miiskin Premium. The Premium version is $25 per year and comes with a 30-day free trial.
Knee replacements: Robotics provide a leg up
My father is one of the estimated 600,000 people in the United States who will undergo a total knee replacement this year. But he’s one of the millions of Americans who have suffered from chronic knee pain for years.
For some people, it’s caused by an injury or osteoarthritis, though in my dad’s case, it’s a little bit of everything: Cartilage so worn down there’s barely a thread left anymore, some ligament tears, scarring and a lifetime of rugged activity. Corticosteroids injections kept some of the pain at bay until about a year ago when they stopped working. These days, his knee is constantly swollen to nearly four times its normal size. He’s incredibly active and it hurts just watching him try to walk down a small hill.
Had we known about it sooner, a new robotic knee orthotic may have given him his mobility back years ago.
“Your dad is the perfect example here,” Tim Swift, founder and CEO of Roam Robotics, said when I met with him in the company’s San Francisco-based lab earlier this year. “We want to give millions of people just like him a way to remain mobile between the onset of chronic pain and the time until they need – if they need – a total knee replacement.”
Roam offers a series of heavy-duty carbon-fiber knee braces filled with high-tech sensors and microprocessors to recognize the natural movements of the knee joint. For example, it understands – in real-time – when you need to straighten or bend your knee to navigate stairs versus walking on an even surface. An air powertrain gives the device leverage during extension – when the leg is straight – and lessens resistance when it’s bent.
The brace itself weighs about 2.5 pounds, but it’s powered by a ten-pound “smart pack,” you wear like a backpack. Depending on the activity level, you get about two hours of continuous movement time for each charge.
There are three versions, one for everyday use called Ascend that launched earlier this year, one for skiing called Elevate and a military version called Forge.
I had crossed paths with Swift before. He was one of the original team at Ekso Bionics that invented the rigid robotic exoskeleton to help paraplegics walk. It was during that time he said he wondered if there was a less expensive way to use robotics to bring even more mobility to the masses.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, Roam Robotics lets you take the Ascend-version for a test-walk. It’s registered with the FDA as a Class 1 device, which means your health insurance may cover it in part or in full. Otherwise, the cost is around $7,000.
“We don’t yet gravitate toward robotics as a solution. But if you just look at the numbers, it makes so much sense,” Swift explains. “An estimated 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. Knee pain is the second most common cause of chronic pain. One in four people experience knee pain. Yet, our options for treatment go from prescription painkillers or knee injections [Corticosteroids], to a total knee replacement. We want to give millions of people like your dad an option to remain mobile and pain-free for all those years in-between.”
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Life-saving gadgets and apps: Stay on top of your medication, moles