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Wireless Devices Did Not Cut Health Care Costs In San Diego Study

Would health care costs go down if patients could monitor their chronic diseases at home, using smartphone-connected medical devices? Some doctors think so.

But one recently published San Diego study found that wireless monitoring did not cut costs or make patients any less reliant on traditional health care.

Dr. Eric Topol demonstrates a mobile health app on a smartphone.

Aired 1/22/16 on KPBS News.

Patients in San Diego used small medical devices, synced with an iPhone, to keep tabs on their chronic diseases. Their reliance on hospitals, emergency rooms and doctor visits did not go down.

"We didn't see any savings," said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, which carried out the study. "But the key there is that it was a very short-term study."

Topol and his colleagues launched the Wired for Health study in 2013. They wanted to see how health care use might change if patients were given portable, user-friendly devices to keep tabs on their conditions.

The researchers designed a six-month clinical trial and enrolled 160 San Diego patients dealing with diabetes, high blood pressure and heart arrhythmia.

They had some of those patients continue with standard disease management. But they gave the other patients devices to routinely monitor their blood sugar, blood pressure and heart rate, depending on their conditions.

The devices were synced with health apps on iPhones, also provided to the study participants. Patients could also share their monitoring data with health care providers through Qualcomm Life's HealthyCircles online portal.

During the trial, the monitoring patients still went to the emergency room, the hospital, or their doctor's office about as often as the other patients. Their health insurance claims were just as expensive as the patients who didn't wirelessly monitor themselves.

Topol said the trial results may not have shown savings, but they also didn't show increased costs.

"Some people had actually predicted that people having their data would give them terrible anxiety, and they would wind up going more to the emergency room or to the doctors," said Topol. "We didn’t see that."

The study authors did note a slight increase in emergency room visits within the monitoring group, but they said the difference was not statistically significant.

One noticeable difference between the two groups had to do with how patients perceived their health. The monitoring patients felt more in control of their conditions, and less like their health outcomes were left to chance.

Topol said it could take longer than six months for potential savings from wireless monitoring to kick in. He also said technology has improved since the trial, which ended in 2014. He hopes future studies will give patients newer devices and track them for longer periods.

"This is just the beginning of the story," said Topol. "There are many more chapters coming."

Researchers need to come up with innovative ways to reduce the $3 trillion the United States spends annually on health care, Topol said.

"The hope is eventually we'll lower the need for emergency room visits, hospitalizations and doctor's office visits by giving people their own data that they generate on their own devices," Topol said.

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