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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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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.

Another medical device with promise is the Scanadu Scout, said Dr. Christopher Scorzelli, chief medical officer at Kablooe Design, a Minneapolis company that invents, designs and engineers medical and other devices. His company is not involved with the scanner, made by California-based Scanadu. The product is still in development.

The website for the new scanner says that it will "enable anyone to conduct sophisticated physical exams" on themselves, or as their promotional video suggests, on their sick child. The new scanning devices will be able to keep an ongoing record of daily vital signs -- heart rate, respiration, temperature and oxygen saturation. The scanners will be able to "talk" with patients and doctors via text or other messaging system. Physicians will be able to get a much richer picture of a patient's recent health status, Scorzelli said.

"Think about the snapshot your doctor gets -- they see you maybe once a year and then maybe your insurance changes and you switch health care providers," he said. "There's no continuity of care. What we're hoping is that if we attach a device to your body it will give you an idea of where you are day to day and month to month."

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