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As I stepped on the bathroom scale, my life flashed before my eyes. I looked into the mirror and saw a graph, magically overlaid on my reflection. The red line plotting my weight over the last year looked like the Dow Jones average, with little bumps during the Thanksgiving and Christmas eatathons. It was a sobering image.

That system, called NetWeight, is the invention of MIT Media Lab researcher Brad Geilfuss. With it, Brad argued a fundamental thesis: the way to revolutionize medical practice is by connecting our bodies more directly to the medical system. Since most of us are a captive audience for a few minutes a day in the bathroom, he started there. The scale was a networked sensor. The mirror gave you an “inner view”: it contained a Silicon Graphics computer and a video projector that overlaid live graphics on your reflection. The weight graph could appear on your beer belly.

Before you run screaming from the littlest room in your house with visions of Big Brother watching your every excretion, let’s think this through.

The problem of staying in touch with our health goes far beyond just monitoring flab. For example: there isn’t a person on the planet who has seen a simple, cogent picture that traces the health of his or her heart over the last few years. This can have grave consequences.

Americans suffer 1.5 million heart attacks each year, but only about 10 percent of victims receive timely treatment. When you have an attack, you need an injection of an anticoagulant within an hour or two. Wait longer than that and the drug may do more harm than good. Of course, by then it’s often moot. The muscle has begun to die. In any event, it’s far more expensive to care for someone who has been felled by a heart attack than to nip one in its early stages.

Why do most heart attack victims fail to get treatment in time? The biggest source of delay, it turns out, is that people are disconnected from their bodies. We ignore symptoms. Technology that either exists now or could soon be developed offers a solution. For instance, it should not be too hard to build a wristwatch for high-risk patients that has the cardiological smarts to detect a heart attack, which is about as subtle as a 7.0 Richter quake. The watch would send the right blip to the right place, summoning medical attention and greatly increasing the chance that the patient gets the right treatment in time. At the least, it might flash an alarm: Four hours to live! Call this number.

Of course, heart problems are about much more than a few critical moments: there is a long period of unhealthy living that leads into the risk zone. The trouble is that most people are flying blind. Our sick-care system (and that is what it should be called, since most folks only use it after blowing a gasket, after the damage has been done) is built on the quaint notion that you’ll visit the doctor once in a blue moon and provide a pinprick of data that somehow enables the physician to keep you healthy. But once your body is online, just getting dressed in the morning will activate a “body network” of jewelry, apparel and appliances that collects more vital data every day than your doctor sees in a year. You may be able to see the early warning signs of heart disease in graphic detail when there’s plenty of time to do something about it-and the sporadic medical checkup will go the way of the dodo.

The last time vital-sign monitoring was substantially improved, the result transformed hospitals. Around 1863, Karl Wunderlich proposed a standard medical chart that would hang on the end of a hospital bed. His chart showed temperature, pulse, and respiration data, so that a physician could monitor a patient’s progress at a glance. That basic tool probably had more impact on the quality of hospital care than anything other than drugs and antiseptics. The application of new technologies to the convenient tracking of an individual’s health status promises even greater change today.

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Tagged: Computing, Biomedicine

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