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Home medical monitors, such as those for blood pressure, have become a common presence in the personal health-care arsenal. But as with exercise equipment, many people neglect to use them. New ways to track and store the information gathered by such monitors online could make it easier for people to review and share test results, in turn perhaps changing the way that chronic conditions are managed.

“This kind of technology is going to fundamentally transform the definition of the practice of medicine [so that data can be gathered] not just at the physician’s office or hospital bed, but wherever the patient happens to be,” says Martin Harris, chief information officer at the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio.

One option for tracking health measures at home is Microsoft HealthVault, an online personal health-record service that is compatible with a growing number of home health monitors. Data from these devices can be uploaded directly into a patient’s HealthVault record, where users can then create a handy graph of their blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, or other data, and share it with their doctors or family members.

As a prime candidate–I rarely remember to take my blood pressure at home, let alone bring the slip of paper that the measurements are written on to the doctor with me–I decided to test out the system. After opening a free HealthVault account, I ordered a few devices from Microsoft’s compatible list and installed software for the HealthVault Connection Center, which manages the different devices and uploads data directly into your health record.

Blood pressure is one of the most common–and most important–health measures taken at home. “Most people’s blood pressure is not well controlled,” says Eric Topol, a cardiologist and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, in La Jolla, CA. “And you really need to have multiple readings from different times of day to get a handle on an individual’s blood-pressure patterns.” According to Topol, I’m not the only one with lax recording habits. “In most cases, when I ask patients to take their blood pressure, I’m lucky if I get a few readings,” he says.

My doctor is definitely going to be impressed at my annual appointment next month, thanks to the Omron blood-pressure monitor ($129.99) that I tested. (While the price tag is considerably steeper than the $50 drugstore monitor I have at home, I was so satisfied with the results of this trial run that I am considering buying one for personal use.) It works just like any other cuff-based monitor, but it stores readings, along with the time and date, and can track data for two different users. It connects to the computer through a USB port, and the click of a button uploads any new blood-pressure readings. The data appears in my HealthVault record as a list or a graph, showing date, heart rate, and systolic and diastolic measures.

While being able to monitor one’s health is empowering, physicians say that it’s the potential to integrate the home and the doctor’s office that could transform health care, allowing medical staff to monitor certain conditions remotely. “Normally, I might bring someone back at six weeks or six months to make sure their medication is working,” says Philip Hagen, a physician at the Mayo Clinic. “But once we have a level of confidence that a patient has a good-quality device and is using it properly, we can do a lot of care at a distance. I might be able to avoid a doctor’s visit for them.” The Mayo Clinic launched a free software program this week, available to anyone, that piggybacks on HealthVault, integrating health history and data from medical monitors and providing reminders about vaccinations and other preventative measures. (Unfortunately, the electronic medical record system used at my doctor’s office does not currently interface with HealthVault, so I’ll have to print out the graph and bring it in or log on to HealthVault in her office.)

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Credits: Conrad Warre, Technology Review
Video by Kristina Grifantini

Tagged: Computing, Biomedicine, Microsoft, personalized medicine, health, devices, blood pressure

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