Intel unveils prototypes for doctors, health care

Chipmaker shows off concepts and prototypes of future computers for use by doctors, nurses and patients.

SAN FRANCISCO--Intel showed off concepts and prototypes of future computers on Tuesday that most of us hope we won't have to see anytime soon.

As part of its effort to become a major player in health care, Intel is working with traditional medical equipment companies like General Electric to craft systems for doctors, nurses and patients to better record vital signs or track the progress of diseases.

Some of the models displayed at the Intel Developer Forum look similar to Web tablets and would allow doctors or nurses to record and retrieve patient data while making rounds.

In another display, medical equipment maker Sensitron showed a working prototype of a wheeled cart that collects data from blood pressure monitors and other medical equipment and feeds it into a network.

The push into health care comes as a result of the glaring inefficiencies in the field, said Louis Burns, vice president of the Digital Health Group at the Intel Developer Forum taking place here. Nearly 15 percent of the world's gross national product currently goes to health care, a figure that could rise to 25 percent by 2015 if changes aren't implemented, he said.

"No economy in the world can afford to spend one out of every four dollars on health care. Six trillion (dollars) is spent annually (worldwide) on health care," Burns said. "Most people in the system are working with tools from the '90s."

"It's also a big growth opportunity," he said in an interview.

Computer companies have tried and failed to modernize health care before, Burns admitted. Intel is trying to prevent some of the mistakes of the past by conducting extensive field tests with health care providers.

Intel has orchestrated other industry-wide efforts before, said Burns, pointing out the company's role in consortiums for home entertainment. Other executives have also cited the commercial prospects.

Much of the expense in health care revolves around the fact that the current systems aren't very efficient. Doctors and nurses still collect patient data by hand and write it down on charts. On a visit to a hospital, Burns said he saw a 300-gram premature baby, and next to the baby was a 16-inch stack of paper: it was the baby's first six weeks of health records. Computerized records and standards around security, networking and data types could drastically cut costs.

Errors remain common as well. Nearly 100,000 preventable hospital deaths occur annually, Burns said, citing industry statistics.

Patient data is also somewhat spotty. Health care workers take vital sign readings only once or twice a day. A computerized system can constantly monitor a patient's systems, and then ping a doctor immediately if a change occurs.

"A lot of data is not systematically collected," said Lee Hartwell, the president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the 2001 Nobel laureate for medicine. He joined Burns on stage to discuss how the center has found a way to use semiconductor manufacturing equipment to identify different human proteins associated with cancer.

Intel has shown its model tablets, which is a block of wood made up to look like a piece of equipment, to health care professionals for design advice. Along with the usual computer features, the tablets may contain Bluetooth, RFID and bar code scanning. (Although functional tablets have been created, the company actually only showed plastic mock-ups at the conference.)

"There are some early indications that VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) could be a big play out of this," Burns said. These sort of tablets could come out within three years.

The company has also devised a prototype that resembles a fancy phone answering machine that will let patients conduct their own tests for Parkinson's disease. In one test, patients take plastic pegs from a hole and put them into another hole. By looking at how rapidly patients can do this, and by looking at the results of tests over a period of time, clinicians can see the progress of tremors.

In another test, patients say "ah" as loudly and as for as long as they can to measure the energy and tone quality of their voice, said Eric Dishman, general manager of the health research and innovation group. Parkinson's patients lose their voice over time.

"Many patients discover they have Parkinson's because they believe their spouse has a hearing problem," Dishman said.

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