TUESDAY, Feb. 18, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- They remind you when
it's time to take your medicine, coach you through emergency
medical procedures and text you their approval when you eat your
No, they're not mothers or nurses or family doctors -- they're
"talking" medical devices and apps, among other techy
health-focused inventions, that help people manage everyday
wellness routines, such as taking pills and checking blood sugar
levels, as well as dire medical circumstances.
Talking medical device technology isn't new, but more and more
device makers are using the technology now to create more
patient-friendly products, said Benjamin Arcand, an engineer and
product innovator in the medical devices field, and associate
director of the innovation fellows program at the University of
Minnesota's Medical Devices Center.
Talking portable defibrillators have been around for years,
guiding users through the steps of saving a cardiac arrest victim.
A new epinephrine pen follows suit -- it calmly instructs a nervous
parent or teacher through the injection process to help stop an
allergic child from going into anaphylactic shock.
Other high-tech health tools help teach operating room staffers
how to assemble the complicated set-ups of rarely used surgical
devices. In homes, chatty thermometers tell parents a child's fever
reading and an innovative new app lets an expectant mom hear a
"People have been thinking about talking devices for a long time. The technology has been trying to rise up above the surface for a long time," Arcand said. Finally, he said, the technology is sophisticated enough and affordable enough.
"What I think you'll see is user-friendliness is going to go up over time," Arcand said. "About 10 or 20 years ago, we saw this huge bloom of all these medical devices. Now that the industry is maturing and there's more regulation and less funding capital, new device development is slowing down."
He said while the pace of new products entering the market has
slowed, better, more updated versions of older ideas are appearing:
voice-prompting and voice-activated devices, and better electronic
interfaces for patients, and devices talking to other devices.
"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
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.
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
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
"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."
Health devices that talk to each other, not just to the patient
or doctor, are another big growth area right now, Scorzelli
"There's a lot more now about smart devices able to talk to other devices -- being able to get updates from different neuromodulation devices and implantable defibrillators about what the activity has been," he said.
But Scorzelli said for talking devices to move forward
successfully, inventors and designers need to think broadly.
"Anyone designing a talking device now needs to think about things like will it work in multiple languages? If so, are there slang terms that mean something completely different in another land?" he said. "And to think about how it functions in its environment. There are a lot of devices recalled because the creators don't think through the human issues. The human factor is much more critical, much more important than people give it credit for."
For more on medical devices, visit the
Food and Drug Administration.
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