Living By Numbers: A Patch That Tracks Your Health

proteus raisin
proteus raisin

One thing I've learned covering technology over the years is to be wary of cool hardware. I've seen amazing devices and toys and gadgets and gizmos and scarce few of them ever catch-on. Which is to say, if it's hard to make a good gadget, it's even harder to make it succeed as something people actually want to buy and learn how to use and integrate into their lives. And when something does work - when something is good enough to get people to change the way they live and adjust their routine and introduce new habits - then there's something about that product that deserves study.

This is a lesson I tried to keep in mind the other day when I met some folks from Proteus Biomedical, a Silicon Valley company that's come up with a nifty system for self-monitoring via a data-gathering patch - aka a smart band aid - and smart pills. Called the Raisin system, Proteus's approach is right in line with the stuff I've been researching for The Decision Tree, and the company's CEO and scientists are fully versed in the promise and challenges of personalized medicine. The Raisin system comes down to hardware, so it's far from a sure thing - but it's innovative and intriguing enough to merit some consideration.

The Raisin system has two parts. First there's the patch, a big band-aid thing that you slap on your chest. It collects physiologic data like heart rate, temperature, respiration rate and so forth (Since it's not invasive it doesn't collect chemical information like blood glucose or such). That information is sent, via Bluetooth, to your cell phone, where it is routed online. Voila, constant tracking and aggregation. The patch alone is cool - it's not the only smart band-aid out there, and these things have been around for at least a decade. But it seems like a simple enough variation on the theme and sounds well designed. The second part of the Raisin system adds to the gee-whiz factor: it's a tiny sensor chip that is lodged inside a pill. The sensor can detect when the pill is consumed, and that information is sent to the patch and from there to the Web.

The result is a system that can measure basic biometrics but also can track compliance - whether a patient is taking their medication. It could be used to assess when a patient is at some danger from missing a dose (if their pulse or breathing rate start racing, say) or conversely if there's an overdosage.

Now this is where I could get a bit skeptical - it's a hardware tool for compliance that comes with compliance issues all its own. Will people really tolerate a big bandaid on their belly 24/7? Will they remember to use a new one after a shower, or when they go on a trip? These are the sort of issues that may thwart the adoption of the system. But put those issues to the side for the moment. What's cool about the Proteus Raisin system is that it's capturing data that otherwise is lost, and then giving that data back to the individual (and their loved ones or doctor), in order to improve their health. It's a nifty way to take these ideas about the power of data, the stuff I prattle on here about, and turn them into specific tools.

Of course, I'm hardly the first to hear the Proteus spiel. MIT's Technology Review, Business Week, MedGadget, Wired.com, lots of places have covered the Raisin system. So I'll offer two points that I find intriguing about it that haven't been mentioned elsewhere:

1) Yeah, Proteus' approach may have a compliance issue. But it's an issue with smaller event space, so to speak, than the larger compliance issue of taking your medication three times every day. And if they can get people to wear the patch, they're going to learn a lot more than whether they take their meds - They'll get all sorts of bio-data that's useful beyond any one drug prescription. So the system seems close to pulling off the difficult task of allowing for the passive collection of data and then enabling active engagement with that data. That is, they've turned self-monitoring into a simple, functional tool.

2) The Proteus approach is a relatively open one. The Raisin system is, obviously, proprietary, as is the data-collection hardware (whatever's in that patch). But the Raisin execs said they don't want to control control the interface for using that data, or how a patient uses their data - meaning the info collected via the Raisin system can be ported and integrated into other companies' systems and products. I'm sure there may be restrictions to this, but taking them at their word, this means the folks at Proteus understand that data is only truly useful when it's free to move - and when it's our data, we should be able to move it whereever suits us. So if they say that a Google Health or a Patientslikeme.com could integrate the Raisin data into their own interface, along the lines of blogs adding a YouTube file. This is very reassuring, and would address some of what bothers me about the walls at Nike+ or Virgin HealthMiles - the data you stick there stays there, and it's that much less useful.

So will Proteus' Raisin system catch on? It's a real question, because not only does it face the usual issues of a new piece of hardware in the marketplace but it also faces the additional burden of compliance from patients. But it certainly is the sort of thing that could make living by numbers more easy for people to get into. Even more, the effect of something like a Raisin may be greater than just improving how many pills we take. In an environment when some individuals are feeling overwhelmed by the number of pills they need to take in a certain order or at certain times, a feeling that can impede compliance and make us less likely to make the right choices, a Raisin system can actually give people the data that brings with it a sense of control, of management that transcends the daily schedule and manifests as a control over our broader conditions. It's the sort of thing that make people feel like they're treating their disease, rather than just holding it off. It's the sort of thing that lets us start seeing our health as a series of decisions that we're in charge of. And that's something that deserves to catch on.