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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

January 19, 2013 at 8:00 PM

New tech tools aim to bring health care home

Julie Kientz is studying the use of technology to improve lifestyles. Specifically, she’s looking at ways of tracking life benchmarks to make it easier to live healthier. (Photo by Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

One night in 2007, researcher Julie Kientz dreamed that her fellow Georgia Tech Ph.D. students knew she was sleeping. They had arrived at the lab good and early, and a system of sensors told them that Kientz — a hopeless night owl — was still at home in bed.

“I woke up and thought, ‘We can build that,’… ” Kientz, 32, told me last week.

Kientz, an assistant professor in the University of Washington’s Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering, is setting out to improve public health by giving people tools to track their own habits and share more complete data with their doctors.

More than that, she’s one of a growing number of researchers and entrepreneurs working to bridge the increasingly conspicuous gap between the centralized, tightly regulated world of health care and the open, free-flowing possibilities of personal tech.

Health care as it is vs. health care as it could be.

Seems about time.

Kientz’s Lullaby sleep-tracking system is just one of several projects she hopes can give doctors and patients a boost by using technology to gather better data about patients’ lives. The prototype’s sensors, which sit comfortably in a bedroom and integrate with the sleep tracker in the wearable commercial gadget FitBit, record the night’s changes in light, sound, temperature and motion, and display the data in a layered interface of graphs anyone can understand.

A spike in noise and movement right before you woke up at 6 a.m.? Oh yeah — that’s when the telemarketer called.
Kientz is working with the Sleep Medicine Center at Harborview and UW School of Nursing to develop the tool. Her goal? To see patients with sleep problems check it out of their doctor’s office and take it for a spin. The data they get should be a lot more useful at the next appointment than whatever rough guesses they stammer to doctors’ questions about how many hours they sleep per night or how often they wake up.

And hey — it’s a lot better than spending a night hooked up to wires in a clinic.

Really, why aren’t we doing things like this already?

Sometimes, it’s too much work and too much worry.

Just ask parents.

Before I had my son six months ago, I thought parents tracked their baby’s developmental milestones mostly for fun. Then I learned everything that missed milestones could mean — developmental disabilities that, if caught too late, could mean a lost opportunity for a healthier young life.

Used alone, a doctor’s judgment identifies fewer than 30 percent of children with developmental disabilities, where screening identifies as many as 80 percent, according to recent studies.

Kientz’s research into child development screening, which she began as a Ph.D. student, showed that treating the screening process like a baby book of positive achievements — baby’s first laugh, or recognition of his name — rather than a dry search for something wrong makes parents more enthusiastic about keeping track.

So she’s developed an application called Baby Steps, which combines scrapbook features with key questions and reminders to make administering one popular screening tool — the Ages and Stages Questionnaire — easier for parents and doctors.

Kientz, who is married to fellow UW tech whiz Shwetak Patel and gave birth to their first child, a girl, in November, is teaming up with a Washington Department of Health initiative that wants all kids 0-5 in the state screened for developmental milestones.

While commercial baby apps market to moms eager to scrapbook their baby’s life — increasingly on tablets and smartphones — Baby Steps faces a different challenge. It has to reach people without computers or Internet. People with flip phones but no smartphones. People who speak different languages or whom public-health officials can only reach door-to-door.

In the summer, Kientz and her students will begin a 40-family study to test the solutions they’ve designed: a system that asks milestone questions and collects responses via text message — “Does Jacob turn his head toward a sound? Reply with y/s/n” (for yes, sometimes, not yet)  — and another that does it on Twitter. A version of Baby Steps that would sit in a public kiosk. They’re even working on an iPad app public-health officials can use to collect data more reliably when they visit residents door-to-door.

I can’t help but cheer Kientz on.

Sharing information about ourselves with other people via social technology has been fun these past few years. Fun and occasionally life changing, as we connect around big causes and interests and translate passion more quickly into action.

But what if we began to share more personal data with the institutions and experts who best improve our lives? What if the context and knowledge housed with them were shared back, little by little, so we had more control over our own care?

Kientz isn’t just working on a way to improve data concerning babies’ health, or a way for people to understand their own sleep. She’s working to bring the technology of health care — its applied knowledge as well as its instruments –closer to home.

That’s a big deal. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christianson has an interesting theory about how health care will become affordable and accessible. It won’t be because hospitals and doctors will suddenly become cheap, he says.

It will happen as technology is driven to lower-cost venues — clinics, doctors’ offices, even the home — much the way the technology of room-sized mainframe computers was driven slowly to the smartphone in everyone’s pocket.

Better, cheaper health care through personal technology?

I hope I’m not dreaming.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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