AT&T wants to be your unlikely ally against asthma

In the not-so distant future, AT&T’s (s T) network might not just let you read emails and surf the web – it might actually help you avoid an asthma attack.

This week at the mHealth Summit in Washington, DC, the wireless communications giant said researchers at AT&T Labs are working on a wireless asthma sensor that scans the air for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that may exacerbate asthma symptoms and then alerts patients via smartphone and other devices.

Developed through its AT&T ForHealth Initiative, which it launched in 2010 to develop wireless, cloud-based and networking services for the healthcare industry, the sensor, called Asthma Trigger, is powered by AT&T’s network but was created in partnership with a manufacturer.

According to MedGadget, the device itself leverages the Actuarius gateway cloud platform and uses a ZigBee wireless-equipped, battery-operated microcomputer. When it senses high levels of VOCs, it can feed the air quality data through AT&T’s healthcare information data exchange platform, which then enables patients to receive alerts on smartphones, tablets and computers.

AT&T’s device, which is still in development, isn’t the only interesting innovation for asthmatics. Others include GPS and WiFi-equipped inhalers that can help physicians track their patients’ usage and epidemiologists monitor broader trends, as well as an asthma monitoring “Wheezometer” that analyzes a patient’s breath sounds and transmits the data to physicians and caregivers.

In an interview with MedGadget, AT&T Labs researcher Bob Miller said his team decided to tackle asthma when they realized that the chronic respiratory condition is on the rise – according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 25 million Americans have asthma and 27,000 adults miss work daily because of it.

But as data and IT solutions move deeper into the healthcare industry, devices like the Asthma Trigger can help AT&T establish a foothold in a growing multi-billion-dollar market.

Miller told MedGadget:

“As healthcare becomes increasingly data-driven thanks to a new generation of inexpensive sensors, communication capabilities will play an important role in transmitting this data to where it’s needed—to doctors, hospitals, researchers. AT&T Research is laying the groundwork now for a complete medical communications infrastructure, not just for an asthma device but for a whole host of sensor-based medical devices.”

Earlier this year, at a major health IT conference, AT&T’s assistant vice president for ForHealth Randall Porter told MedHealthWorld that AT&T is motivated not only by profit but by its own position as a self-insured employer. Each year, he said, it spends $5.5 billion to cover its 1.2 million employees.

The ForHealth initiative encompasses a range of projects, including cloud-based solutions for medical imaging and information management, telehealth and an online community for secure messaging and information exchange between patients, doctors, payers and providers.

As we’ve written about before, healthcare is in the early days of a massive change, as mobile technology, more open data, connected devices and cloud computing upend legacy systems and boost patient engagement. Plenty of new startups, funded by a flood of venture capital money, are taking on many of the same areas addressed by ForHealth. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how AT&T competes with (and maybe even buys) some of those upstarts.

Image by Peter Nadolski via Shutterstock.