How am I feeling...next Wednesday?

Nov 3, 2008, 9:36 AM, Posted by Al Shar

What if you knew what was going to happen in the next two days? I would bet on the lottery number that I knew was coming up and, perhaps, avoid some of the mistakes I almost certainly would make.

This might sound a bit like science fiction but researchers at the Center for Future Health at the University of Rochester are beginning to demonstrate that people with heart disease will be able to know their health status future and be able to take action to change it. Under that scenario, I would be able to take action on Thursday so that I’d be able to dance at my daughter’s wedding Saturday night.

This is not as far fetched as it might sound. Engineers have been using sensors to monitor the “health” of machines so that they can predict and avoid failures, and they have teamed with medical professionals and computer scientists to see if they can develop comfortably wearable devices that can measure and interpret signals that can define a health index that adapts as it learns more about the individual who is wearing it. Such a system can translate those learnings into actions that can help the end user get better or alert others that other actions need to be taken.

Early results are promising. Working with a small sample of patients and healthy people, they’ve found that they can use sensors that are easy to wear, collect appropriate data and can transfer readings to a smart phone. They can distinguish between healthy and sick people and detect changes that seem to presage future events. They’ve even been able to build a wearable prototype as a proof of concept. The patients (from varied backgrounds) that have volunteered to be part of this project are all engaged and enthusiastic.

However, there are a huge number of questions that need answers. Data are being collected in a way that they haven’t before so interpretation is not yet validated or refined. It’s still unclear what needs to be collected and how good a job one can do in predicting future events. Does the methodology generalize to other conditions? How will the health profession be engaged and participate? There are certainly more questions than answers at this point.

But we have learned that the field of machine monitoring and prediction can teach us something about health management. And maybe, someday, I’ll discovery the winning lottery number a day before it’s picked.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.