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Participatory Public Health

November 13, 2012
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Asthmapolis sensors send data from asthma inhalers to public health agencies

A recent report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 19 percent of U.S. adult smartphone users have applications to help them manage their health. And we are starting to see some sophisticated examples of applications that combine sensors, mobile devices and public health reporting. My favorite so far? Asthmapolis, a Madison, Wisc.-based company that collects data from sensors in asthma patients’ inhalers and feeds it back to patients and to public health agencies to help identify community-wide asthma triggers that can be improved or eliminated.

I recently had the chance to interview David Van Sickle, Ph.D., who founded Asthmapolis to support both disease management and public health efforts. He had worked for many years as an asthma epidemiologist, including a stint with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

David Van Sickle, Ph.D.

Credit: Asthmapolis

As he studied outbreaks of respiratory disease, Van Sickle was essentially frustrated by the lack of timeliness and specificity of data.

“We would get data from National Center for Health Statistics that was two to three years old,” he said. Data was about hospitalizations and deaths but not about emergency room visits or about missed school or work, he noted, even though there are approximately 10 million office visits and 25 million missed days of school or work because of asthma. Also they were only getting one piece of geographic data: the person’s address. Yet asthma events were also occurring elsewhere in the community.

“In terms of data, we were really only getting the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “I thought if we could capture time and location, that would be instrumental. We could overhaul this through technology.”

In 2006, while working at the University of Wisconsin, he started playing with chips and sensors with inhalers, trying to make it cheaper, lighter and smaller.
His creation, Asthmapolis, attaches to a patient’s inhaler and wirelessly syncs with a smart phone. A patient can track their triggers and symptoms and learn more about their asthma over time, and share that information with their physician. In a pilot project, patients got e-mail reports and guidance to help improve asthma control, and Van Sickle said 70 percent of participants reported improved control. Poor asthma control is a huge health and economic concern.

The company was formed in 2010, and they got FDA approval for the solution in July 2012. Their core market is disease management services, but Van Sickle also saw an opportunity for municipalities and public health agencies and employers to all work together. One of the first places Asthmapolis is being tried is Louisville, Ky., where a coalition of public- and private-sector stakeholders came together to provide the initial funding for the project.

Credit: Asthmapolis

In Louisville, they have enrolled 280 people, with the goal of enrolling 400 patients by the end of year, and data is already starting to flow to public health officials, Van Sickle noted.

“This can be a new weapon in the public health battle,” he said. “It gives agencies the ability to target interventions and show return on investment on their tangible efforts at air quality improvement.”