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'Talking' Medical Devices, Apps Continue to Evolve

Innovations can help people manage their conditions, function in emergencies, keep doctors informed
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"More incremental improvements, not so much breakthrough devices," Arcand added.

He said some inventors of talking medical devices, including himself, employ "ethnographic" research so their inventions will be more likely to succeed right out of the starting blocks, and avoid expensive redesigns or worse, injuring patients.

With ethnographic research, "an inventor might go into the operating room and see how staff uses a device and talk to them about it," Arcand explained. "There will be observation and interviewing. It's about careful observation and watching what happens over time and throughout the patient's care and recovery."

Bernard Fuemmeler, an associate professor of community and family medicine at Duke University Medical Center, said a glut of health apps "talk" back, too.

He and colleagues at Duke developed a health app geared towards adolescents -- cancer survivors who tend to struggle with obesity as they age.

"We developed the app as part of an intervention. Another one we are working on is for obesity in adolescents," said Fuemmeler, who is also co-director of mHealth@Duke. He explained that while the apps don't talk out loud, they communicate verbally using push notifications and chat features, reminding users to eat their one new vegetable a day, or giving users kudos if a nutrition goal is achieved.

He said there are some great app concepts in the "talking" health app world, but they fall short because they are not backed by solid evidence, or they're technically mediocre.

Fuemmeler said he and colleagues conducted a review of obesity apps and found that many were not built on solid medical research. "Many versions that first came on market were not very evidence-based in terms of their recommendations for how to lose weight, the evidence-based advice we'd adhere to if we were counseling patients on weight loss," he said.

One example of a new talk-back app doesn't involve being told what to do by a computerized voice, but instead, hearing the sounds inside your own body -- in this case, a pregnant woman's body. The makers of the Bellabeat app say on their website that it lets a woman listen to her unborn baby's heartbeat, record it, and share the rhythm with loved ones -- for $129. The app also helps a woman plan and track weight gain during her pregnancy on her smartphone or other devices.

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