Ford: Cars may be mobile health's next platform

By Brian Dolan
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Brian Dolan, Editor, MobiHealthNewsFirst mobile phones, then tablets, then... cars? Paul Mascarenas, the Chief Technology Officer at Ford Research and Innovation, told me and a group of automotive journalists at Ford headquarters in Michigan yesterday that he believes the car will be the next platform for mobile health services.

"It's a platform just like your smartphone... just like your tablet," Mascarenas said at the media event. Mascarenas noted that we spend a lot of time in our cars, which have become one of our few private spaces. Couple that privacy with an increasing number of connectivity options -- Bluetooth, USB and more -- and "that makes the car the ultimate setting for health and wellness activities," he said.

Mascarenas surprised me when he said that "We [Ford] see health and wellness as a core area for us moving forward."

Gary Strumolo, Manager, Vehicle Design & Infotronics, Ford Research and Innovation explained that Ford has architected three ways for mobile health services to interact with its cars: Bluetooth connectivity between the car's computer and personal medical devices, remote access to cloud services via the car's computer, and synching up to the health apps users already have on their smartphones.

Representatives from Medtronic, WellDoc and SDI also presented at the Ford event -- each demonstrated a service that makes use of one of the scenarios above. Medtronic demo'd a continuous glucose meter (CGM) that connected to the car via Bluetooth and allowed users to hear alerts about their blood glucose readings instead of having to fumble with their monitor's screen while driving. WellDoc demonstrated its cloud-based DiabetesManager service, which could encourage drivers to double check their blood sugar right when they get behind the wheel if they had a low reading earlier that day. Finally, SDI showed how its Allergy Alert app for the iPhone could sync up to Ford cars and keep drivers aware of allergy, flu and asthma alerts in the areas they are driving through.

Convenience aside there are also practical reasons for bring mobile health to the car: "Health and wellness of the driver is critical to the operation of the car," Strumolo said.

WellDoc's President and COO Anand Iyer noted that people with diabetes could have three to five times the likelihood of getting into an accident if they have a hypoglycemic episode while behind the wheel. As a result, alerting drivers to potentially hazardous glucose levels and prompting them to boost their levels also improves driver safety.

"We have always said from the beginning that we were device agnostic," Dr. Suzanne Clough, Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer, WellDoc said in a video that Iyer included in his presentation. "Granted, we never thought we’d be talking about the car, but [it makes sense]," she said.

During the question and answer period Strumolo said that the automaker was already researching embedded heart rate monitors in seats to measure a driver's stress levels. He said the car could also make a decision based on heart rate level -- an indication of stress -- along with the driver's activity: maybe he's trying to switch lanes -- to decide whether to allow a call to come through or go directly to voicemail.

Commercialization, however, isn't likely to come about in the near term for mobile health services in Ford vehicles. While Medtronic's device, WellDoc's service and SDI's pollen app are all available today, Ford's representatives repeatedly reminded reporters that this was just a demonstration. The earliest any of these services might come to market would be in one to two years, but even then the automaker made no promises.

Still most of those presenting characterized the announcement as watershed.

"This is an event that is historic in wireless health," stated Professor William Kaiser of UCLA and the UCLA Wireless Health Institute. "Wireless health began with the devices... but the vehicle [will be] the new centerpiece."

If it's not for two years, then mobile health has miles of road to travel first.

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