Bluetooth Technology Allows Heart Monitors to Contact Hospitals Automatically

Why use a phone when your heart can contact emergency response on its own?

Researchers in India say when a heart attack strikes, your heart should soon be able to send a text message to the hospital to get help.

A study published Tuesday in Inderscience's International Journal of Electronic Healthcare found a wearable "Telemedicine" Bluetooth heart device is able to send text messages to local hospitals when the heart shows signs of extreme distress.

The Bluetooth heart monitor regularly records a patient's electrocardiogram (EKG), and sends levels to the patient's cell phone, but also checks the signals for signs of sudden cardiac failure, and if a problem is detected, alerts the nearest medical center with a text message.

Thulasi Bai, a professor at the Sathyabama University in Tamil Nadu, India, told the Bluetooth monitor gives patients at risk for heart failure a chance for more mobile lifestyles.

"Before, the doctor has to determine the information, but with this, everything is truly automatic and immediate care can be given to the patient," said Bai, who began testing the model two months ago along with her senior professor S.K. Srivatsa.

The difference between this wearable heart monitor and other previously developed ones is that this device not only transmits information to the doctor through Bluetooth, a wireless network used to transfer information, but it is also designed to read the EKG levels carefully enough to know if the heart is actually suffering an attack before sending the message, Bai said.

Not only would this offer the patient more mobility, said Bai, but it would save the doctor time in analyzing the levels him or herself.

The scarcity of doctors available in densely-populated India is what inspired her project, she said.

India has less than 60 doctors per 100,000 people, according to the World Health Organization, and a study published by Columbia University in 2004 found that the number of lives lost to cardiovascular disease will increase by 95 percent in the country by 2030.

"In India, it is hard to get an available doctor," Bai said. "With this, a doctor can get the information, and it is not necessary that the doctor be in the hospital, the doctor can be anywhere."

An immediate and automatic contact with emergency response increases the chances of survival, Bai noted, as every minute is crucial after a heart attack strikes.

Inderscience reported in a press release that cardiovascular disease kills almost 20 million people each year, and puts around 22 million people worldwide at risk of sudden heart failure at any one time.

The Telemedicine device would not just be for the people of India, however, Bai hopes it can be used all over the world.

In America, nearly 900 people die each day of heart failure before they reach a hospital, according to the American Heart Association. The chances of a heart attack victim surviving decreases by 10 percent every minute after the attack until defibrillation.

Bai says her Bluetooth device would help heart attack patients in those crucial moments, what she called the "golden hour" after a heart attack.

Some doctors are skeptical about the effects new Bluetooth devices can have on preventing heart attack deaths, though.

Dr. Mark Shoenfeld, a former president of the Heart Rhythm Society and a clinical professor of medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine, said the idea of using Bluetooth devices is not entirely new.

He has been working with electrophysiology at Yale for more than 20 years, and has diagnosed hundreds of patients with health information received from remote monitoring, using radio frequency transmission in pacemakers and defibrillators.

A heart monitor that takes care of the diagnosing, though, leaves a lot to be questioned, he said.

"There are certainly advantages to be had from this provided the information is accurate," said Schoenfeld. "It’s not a matter of having the information but rather who is receiving it, and whether they are using it in the right way."

Shoenfeld also posed the question of whether the constant EKG levels sent to the doctors would overwhelm facilities if its sensitivity was too great.

"It’s wonderful to have something that will empower patients but you want to make sure that every time something is sent, the information is being used correctly," Shoenfeld said.

IBM and St. Jude's Medical, Inc. released similar devices in implantable pacemakers and defibrillators that were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in May 2006.

Defibrillators, machines used to jump-start the heart after cardiac arrest, can be a more immediate solution to the heart attack problem, Schoenfeld said.

"From a remote location, someone could detect a problem and send a shock to the implanted defibrillator, jump-starting the heart during a heart attack," Schoenfeld said. "This is actually a device that is therapeutic, the one they’re developing [in India] is more diagnostic."

A committee formed by the Heart Rhythm Society and the European Society of Cardiologists is currently drawing up guidelines of how remote pacemakers and defibrillators like these can be used around the world.

Bai and other researchers in India, however, are working on how to enable global-positioning system (GPS) in the Bluetooth device so that the response to a patient can be even faster. They also aim to improve the level of detail that can be sent from the cell phone to the emergency room using the Multimedia Messaging Services (MMS) instead of the SMS text messaging system.

The Telemedicine monitor has not been tested on heart patients, said Bai, whose entire thesis will be completed in December.