Can mHealth help people breathe easier?



If you've ever seen someone in the midst of an asthma attack gasping for breath due to narrowed airways, you know what a debilitating chronic respiratory disease it is. Unfortunately, as horrible as the symptoms of asthma are, it has no cure. More than 300 million people worldwide suffer from asthma, and each year more than 250,000 die from the disease globally, often due to a lack of proper treatment. 

Anti-inflammatory medications and lifestyle changes can help patients manage the disease, such as controlling exposure to indoor allergens and secondhand smoke, but the reality is that they will not cure it. Asthma management is all about making patients more aware of their symptoms, triggers, and potential risks, while encouraging adherence to their treatment plans.

However, poor management of asthma, as evidenced by symptom flare ups and increased use of inhalers, can lead to emergency room visits, hospitalization, and even death. Thankfully, mobile health technology is emerging as an effective enabler for asthmatics in creating a proactive action plan in limiting the onset of an asthma attack.

A new feasibility study funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) will leverage AMC Health's telemonitoring platform to improve asthma control by monitoring when patients use their asthma medications and intervening as soon as a problem develops. Telemonitors, which clip onto inhalers, will allow researchers to know immediately if a patient doesn't take the controller medication as prescribed, or is using the rescue inhaler too often, and can help stabilize the patient before a full-blown asthma attack forces them to go to the emergency room. 

Where you live with this disease matters. Geographic location, in particular, can have a significant impact on asthma due to air quality factors. AT&T Labs is working on a wireless asthma sensor called Asthma Trigger that scans the air for compounds that may cause asthma symptoms, alerting patients via mobile devices. Similarly, Asthmapolis, an FDA-cleared mHealth solution for asthma, pinpoints the exact location and possible environmental causes of an asthma attack with the aid of an inhaler tagged with a GPS sensor that provides a user's location every time they use it to control asthma symptoms. 

Though asthma affects people of all ages, it most often starts during childhood and is one of the most common chronic diseases among children. According to NHLBI, more than 25 million people in the United States have asthma, of which seven million are kids.

An encouraging recent study from the Georgia Institute of Technology has found that simple, daily SMS text messages asking pediatric asthma patients about their symptoms and providing knowledge about their condition can lead to improved health outcomes. Likewise, study results indicate that mobile phones provide a feasible method for assessing asthma symptoms and medication adherence in adolescents.

Regrettably, asthma often gets short shrift when compared to the federal government's funding of other higher profile chronic diseases. It's the reason the American Lung Association has long advocated for increased funding for the National Institutes of Health so that more research and clinical trials can be done.

Nevertheless, as a serious chronic lung disease, asthma seems to be getting much-needed attention from the mHealth community in the form of new apps and telemonitoring capabilities. Consequently, asthmatics are starting to breathe easier with the help of mobile technology. - Greg (@Slabodkin)

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