Ochsner using wearable tech. to help combat chronic diseases
By RICHARD THOMPSON
May. 20, 2017
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Never mind tracking steps and burned calories.
A recent initiative from Ochsner Health System uses wearable technology with built-in health-tracking features to help patients with chronic diseases better manage their condition in real time.
For health care providers like Ochsner, the success of efforts like this could have real results: Nationwide, chronic diseases are tied to 7 of 10 deaths annually, and the related treatment accounts for 86 percent of the nation's medical care costs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition to collecting up-to-date health data, wearable technology like smart watches and fitness bands can let some patients avoid an extra doctor's visit simply to collect a reading — a convenience that serves as another potential incentive.
"These diseases are called chronic diseases for a reason: For most people, it's for the rest of their lives," said Dr. Richard Milani, Ochsner's chief clinical transformation officer. "Things about you change, so that now everything is peachy, but maybe the next month it's not, depending on what's happening in your life, and we need to be able to course-correct.
"It's a major convenience factor," he added. "We're making their lives easier, not harder."
For medical providers, embracing an already popular technology has advantages. In a survey last year of 1,000 people, the accounting firm PwC reported that 49 percent owned at least one wearable device, up from 21 percent two years earlier, while 36 percent had multiple devices.
Because data are gathered regularly in real time rather than during occasional checkups, medical staff can analyze them to help patients regulate their condition and improve their numbers.
Through a 2015 pilot program, Ochsner targeted high blood pressure, or hypertension, which occurs when blood is forced through arteries with too great a force.
In the U.S., one in three American adults has high blood pressure, which can cause blood vessel damage and increase the risk of a heart attack, stroke, kidney problems and death.
High blood pressure typically has been treated in a doctor's office, but some experts, including Milani, say that approach relies on a small and often infrequent number of readings, which restricts medical staff from making fast adjustments.
Walter Lane, an associate professor at the University of New Orleans who studies health care economics, said Ochsner was "definitely one of the early adopters" of the idea of using wearable technology to track health data.
"Around the country, there's some experimental things starting out, but I think Ochsner really is on the forefront of this," he said.
Ochsner's pilot program, which it boasts was the first of its kind in the U.S. that helped patients manage a chronic condition using an Apple Watch, tracked 156 patients with uncontrolled hypertension starting in 2015.
The group, which was identified by clinical visits within an 18-month span, used a home-based, digital-monitoring program to track their blood pressure. Using cuffs that were enabled with wireless technology, patients measured their blood pressure, and the readings were transmitted to their Apple Watch, as well as Ochsner's electronic medical registry.
The group's results were compared with those of 400 other patients — matched by age, sex, body mass index and blood pressure — who received standard care.
During the trial period, Ochsner monitored the patients in real time and made adjustments and recommendations as needed. The patients who used the cuffs averaged about 4.2 blood pressure readings each week.
After 90 days, Ochsner found that 71 percent of the digital-medicine patients had reduced their blood pressure to within a targeted range, compared with 31 percent of the control group. The findings were published this year in the American Journal of Medicine.
"We're engaging our patients more efficiently," Milani said.
Next, Milani plans to explore using the technology to monitor patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes.
To raise awareness about emerging technologies that could improve patient care, Ochsner has expanded its O Bar concept, which showcases popular health apps that are vetted by medical professionals.
The concept, a nod to Apple's Genius Bar, has expanded to four hospital facilities: the Ochsner Center for Primary Care and Wellness on Jefferson Highway, Ochsner Health Center in Covington, Ochsner Medical Center on the West Bank and Ochsner Baptist Medical Center in New Orleans.
More than 1,100 patients used the O Bar in 2016, the hospital said.
Andres Rubiano was Ochsner's first patient to subscribe to the Apple Watch program.
Rubiano, 56, was surprised when he was diagnosed with hypertension in his early 30s. He wasn't overweight, didn't smoke, watched what he ate and had an active lifestyle. He tried medication, but his condition worsened over time.
A former Ochsner employee, Rubiano, who lives in Old Metairie, said his blood pressure readings have improved dramatically, which has given him "a tremendous peace of mind."
"The best part of it was they were monitoring me on a regular basis," he said, "and they were able to tweak my meds to the point where my blood pressure is no longer an issue."