Wireless asthma inhaler teaches proper use

The T-Haler monitors how patients use their inhalers and sends real-time feedback on how to improve.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
3 min read
Did you shake the device first? Breathe in with sufficient force? Press the drug release canister at the right time? Cambridge Consultants

Many of us have never been properly trained on how to do or use certain things we really should be good at. Putting on condoms and installing infant car seats are just two skills that come to mind; when we get them wrong, the health consequences can be grave.

The same can be said for improper asthma inhaler use--a serious and expensive problem considering some 5,000 people visit the emergency room due to and 11 people die from asthma every day, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Let's face it: some devices could use training wheels.

Enter the T-Haler, a digital asthma inhaler training device developed by researchers at Cambridge Consultants. Patients can use the inhaler and, via interactive software linked to the wireless device, get real-time visual feedback on the areas that need improving.

The T-Haler is looking for three factors that determine how effectively the drugs are delivered in what is called a metered dose inhaler: whether patients have shaken the device before breathing in; whether they use sufficient force when breathing in; and whether they press down the canister that releases the drug at the optimal time.

One type of inhaler, called the AeroChamber, already addresses the improper use of metered dose inhalers with a system that improves the delivery of medicine via a mask, anti-static chamber, and more. Still, it is only prescribed to those who have difficulty using traditional inhalers, and of course comes with its own set of instructions (albeit simple ones that essentially tell the user to shake first).

As for the T-Haler, a company spokesperson says the device is still a concept product, but that it was designed as a training device to be available at pharmacies, schools, and clinics for children and adults alike.

Cambridge Consultants conducted a small study on 50 people ages 18 to 60 who had no prior experience with either asthma or inhalers and were given no instruction on how to use an inhaler. When tested, about 80 percent of the participants used an inhaler incorrectly.

They were then given the T-Haler with no further instruction and told to begin. A three-minute on-screen tutorial guided them through the proper use of an inhaler, and the success rate tripled to more than 60 percent.

"Without any human direction beyond the word 'go', participants went from around a 20 percent success rate without training to a success rate of more than 60 percent after only three minutes with the T-Haler device," said Kate Farrell, a senior design engineer, in a news release. "This is more than twice the compliance rate we have seen in other studies with trained participants. Interestingly, a week later, 55 percent were still correctly using the device--showing that they retained what they learned."

Whether T-Haler itself will ever make it to market remains to be seen, but the concept of a 3-minute training device seems a no-brainer when it comes to properly using a device that may very well save one's life.