George’s Corner: September/October 2014

More Gadgets ––>

In the last issue I said that in the future there would be more health/medical electronic gadgets. My computer told me about these — and I can’t resist adding some comments.

That ECG (or EKG) reader that attaches to your smartphone and reads your heart’s electricity has been approved for tachycardia monitoring. You can buy one, and if you are feeling a bit strange, grab it, get the ECG read, and call your doctor or 911 if it says you have tachycardia. They haven’t announced that your phone will tell 911 where you are and send the ambulance and the ER a copy of your ECG. But I am sure they are working on it.

Of course, your monitoring devices will also make available your breathing rate, your pulse, your blood oxygen, and how far you walked or ran in the last hour or so.

Other folks are working on using a laser beam to measure blood glucose levels. No more lancets and bleeding. Thousands of diabetics are looking forward to this one. Right now the machine occupies a big space in the developer’s lab, but it seems to be working. Perhaps in a couple of years they will be able to get it down to wristwatch size.

Migraines plague many people. We have all had patients and friends who suffer with this pain. There is a company developing a vagus nerve stimulator that you hold on your neck for a while every day, providing a lot of relief for many who are testing it. It is small; the whole thing fits in your hand. There should be a big market for that, even if it turns out to be expensive.

How about an air quality monitor that attaches to your smartphone? Folks with asthma and other respiratory diseases would love to have a gadget or app that will tell them when they are entering problematic areas. It is due to hit the market next year. I expect that some people will also want to use it to document air quality near places they believe are polluters, so they can hassle the polluters. It could get interesting.

Intel is working with the Michael J. Fox Foundation to use smartwatches to collect data tracking the progression of Parkinson’s disease. It will gather 300 observations per second about movement, tremor, and sleep quality. Thousands of patients will generate gazillions of megabytes of data tracking the disease and the effects that variables such as drugs will create. That sounds like the biggest data analysis project one can imagine.

A skin cancer detector. Anybody who has spent any time in the sun (all of us) wonders about that new spot on his or her skin. Is it cancer? Right now the only way to find out is to go to a dermatologist who says yes, no, or maybe. If yes, cut it out or kill it with liquid nitrogen. If no, say thank you. If maybe, get a biopsy and wait a week or so for the results. A new gadget the size of a pen, which hooks up to a portable imaging computer, can take a look at the spot and instantly provide the yes or no answer. It is in pilot testing phase.

Back pain is another big medical problem. A wearable device that monitors movement of the lower back will aid in diagnosis and treatment. Again, there will be lots of data on lots of patients, as well as the ability to add other monitoring data to see if there are any correlations.

My friends tell me that pharmacists have enough on their plate taking care of drug matters. I agree. There is no way that I, a 1961 graduate of pharmacy school, can ever catch up with what is going on in the drug world. But at the same time, this technology stuff sorely needs a medical professional at the point of patient contact. 

An OTC transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator (TENS) for diabetics with peripheral neuropathy is becoming available. Just strap it on to your leg and press a button. Again, millions of customers for this one.

Early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease may become possible using an eye-imaging device that can detect beta-amyloid protein levels in the eye that correlate to those in the brain. It is a lot easier to look at the eye than to get a brain sample.

Do you want to learn faster? Another group is working on a brainpower stimulator (1.5 milliampere current) that is inside of a cap that you wear when you want to learn faster. OK, this one is a bit much, so I’m going to stop.

If you want to stay up to date on these things, check out and its related sites.


Apple, Google, and many other big and small high- tech firms and venture capitalists are putting huge amounts of money into these and other health/medical electronic gadgets. They all see how a new technology can do something that is needed. But I have yet to see anything about sales and distribution.

The market is huge. There are no distribution systems in place. What kind of people and systems need to be in the distribution system? Will it be, Apple stores, or the medical practitioner’s office? Or could it be pharmacies? I like the last one, because the pharmacist’s medical intelligence needs to be there to help the patient. These gadgets will be expensive, they won’t work for everybody, and people will need professional help. I don’t know where else patients would go.

My friends tell me that pharmacists have enough on their plate taking care of drug matters. I agree. There is no way that I, a 1961 graduate of pharmacy school, can ever catch up with what is going on in the drug world. But at the same time, this technology stuff sorely needs a medical professional at the point of patient contact.

There are a lot of trials of retail clinic models in pharmacy settings. The smallest independents and the largest chains are all testing the waters. Perhaps this is where these gadgets belong.

As I said in my last column: The future is accelerating and will overtake us if we don’t run faster.

I wrote this column in the middle of the night. The next morning’s paper had a long article about how the fashion industry is going to be designing, making, and marketing all of the wearable medical products. So your heart monitor will be underneath a polo pony. And the highly trained people folding clothes at your local clothing outlet will be there to advise you about which set of gadgets you need. CT

George Pennebaker, Pharm.D., is a consultant and past president of the California Pharmacists Association. The author can be reached at; 916/501-6541; and PO Box 25, Esparto, CA 95627.