MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now a new kind of medical technology that can transmit your physiological information to your doctor from just about anywhere, think of it as a really smart Band-Aid. There's just one problem: It's so new that regulators are still figuring out what rules are necessary to protect the public.
Colorado Public Radio's Eric Whitney reports.
ERIC WHITNEY: A wirelessly-enabled Band-Aid that can call your doctor when it detects a problem is still a very cutting-edge technology. But it builds on more than a decade of refining the practice of remote monitoring. That's when health care providers give patients simple-to-use home diagnostic equipment that connects to a network.
(Soundbite of Velcro cuff)
Ms. NATALIE COLE: Hook it up.
WHITNEY: Like the smart blood pressure cuff Natalie Cole uses in Golden, Colorado.
Ms. COLE: Hit the start button and it'll run through its cycles all automatically. I dont have to do anything but sit here.
WHITNEY: The cuff inflates, takes a reading, and then, through her home computer, uploads the numbers to a secure website.
Ms. COLE: See if I can remember my password on it.
WHITNEY: The important part is that Cole can quickly and easily share her blood pressure numbers with doctors and pharmacists. The system has already helped them adjust her medication.
Ms. COLE: Because it wasnt quite where they wanted it, so they changed my prescription at that point.
WHITNEY: Stories like that have convinced Cole's HMO, Kaiser Permanente Colorado, that networking smart medical devices in the home can improve care and save money. The Department of Veterans Affairs has been saying that for years. A recent VA study of 17,000 patients found remote monitoring cut hospitalizations by 19 percent.
And remote monitoring is poised to become a lot more common thanks to a new generation of tiny sensors that can be worn by a patient 24-7, worn on an adhesive strip that sticks to the skin about the size of a large Band-Aid.
Dr. ERIC TOPOL (Chief Innovation Officer, West Wireless Health Institute): Band-Aids now we know can measure the electrocardiogram, the heart rhythm, respiratory rate, the temperature of the patient.
WHITNEY: That's Dr. Eric Topol, with the West Wireless Health Institute, an industry group that promotes wireless medical devices. He says smart Band-Aids can measure dozens of health indicators and then display readings on a patient's mobile phone or even the Internet.
Dr. TOPOL: It's basically what we could call the body area network. Where it involves a sensor, and today usually Bluetooth to get that to a transmitter and then sent off to the Web.
WHITNEY: Getting the information on the Web enables all kinds of potential applications. One that's in the works is aimed at the problem physicians call non-compliance, better known as Mom, did you take your pills?
Dr. George Savage's startup company is developing tiny microchips that can be embedded in pills.
Dr. GEORGE SAVAGE: What we've managed to do is create a tiny, grain of sand-sized integrated circuit, which is coated with essential minerals, and when swallowed, those different minerals generate a small amount of power, a little voltage.
WHITNEY: That voltage can be detected on the skin by, you guessed it, a smart Band-Aid. It could literally text Savage, confirming his mother actually swallowed her pills.
That kind of technology scares some people, and there's concern that it's all getting ahead of public safety. Federal regulators are still wrestling with who's responsible for approving the new generation of mobile health devices.
Mr. JULIUS KNAPP (Deputy Chief of Engineering Technology, Federal Communications Commission): There is a little bit of a gray area, and that's part of the reason why we're stepping up our collaboration
WHITNEY: Julius Knapp is with the Federal Communications Commission. It's collaborating with the Food and Drug Administration to write new rules for the wireless medical industry. That's slowing the release of some products for which there's already demand. But Knapp says that delay is okay.
Mr. KNAPP: Where we need to make sure that there is reliable operation is where we may, for example, be monitoring critical, life-sustaining functions or perhaps even controlling, remotely, treatment.
WHITNEY: An example would be a wirelessly controlled insulin pump for diabetics. It could release exactly the right amount of insulin to keep someone healthy based on readings sent to it by a smart Band-Aid. But if there's radio interference or some other glitch with either the patch or the pump, there could be serious health consequences.
Knapp says the agencies want to open the door to the promise of the new technology but only if it doesn't jeopardize people's lives.
For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Denver.