CES: Pro athletes may hold key to wider patient engagement

By: Neil Versel | Jan 18, 2012        

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zephyr-under-armour-e39-shirtWant to empower consumers to improve healthcare and their own health status? Build a Tricorder and convince youngsters to “be like Mike.”

Those were the takeaways from a high-level session featuring Dr. Leslie Saxon of the University of Southern California Center for Body Computing and Qualcomm’s Don Jones at the third annual Digital Health Summit at 2012 International CES last week in Las Vegas.

Saxon, a cardiologist who is executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing, said that researchers are readying results from a study of wireless monitors on pro and college football players that revealed previously undetected conditions in elite athletes. “If the NFL monitored the heart rate of all players, they’d end up benching 30 percent of them,” Saxon declared.

That doesn’t mean that nearly a third of National Football League players have heart conditions, just that sometimes they overexert themselves, according to Saxon. This could easily be applied to children and weekend warriors, too, through the sensor-equipped apparel that athletic clothing maker Under Armour supplied for the NFL’s annual scouting combine.

Under Armour is a popular brand already. Adding sensors to clothing sold to the general public could spark a revolution of sorts.

“Kids won’t just want to wear Michael Jordan’s sneakers,” Saxon said. “You’re getting them to wear sensors to ‘be like Mike.’”

Saxon recalled how she and her sisters persuaded their mother to quit smoking in the 1970s, after information started coming out that smoking was bad for health. A similar thing could happen with health information in the near future, and it could help with early detection of potentially fatal conditions. “Many of these problems are occurring asymptomatically, where the first symptom is death,” she said.

Add in a gaming element, and more people will want to be involved in collecting health information to promote wellness, according to Saxon, “I think a lot of what will happen with health in the home will happen with children who get engaged with health information,” she said.

Saxon, who has pushed for multidisciplinary collaboration among various USC departments, reported that a USC film student came up with the idea of applying the Farmville concept to blood to encourage blood testing among certain patient populations. The school’s engineering department then built a prototype game called Vampire Rancher.

“You’re suddenly sitting on all this amazing research data” when people start getting engaged in health through gaming. This leads to the “monetization of data,” according to Saxon. And when that happens, healthcare payers will start to take notice.

“If you can aggregate things together, then you can do something,” said session moderator Jones, vice president of wireless health, global strategy and market development at Qualcomm.

“In some cases, the business model is the Kindle model, where you order supplies with the device,” Jones added.

“The Tricorder really is the pinnacle of the concept,” Jones explained. That idea, based on the fictional Tricorder device from the original 1960s “Star Trek” series, is a handheld device that can diagnose medical conditions as well as any physician.

As MobiHealthNews has reported, Qualcomm has funded the Tricorder X Prize competition.