New Partnership Increases Access to Healthcare

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, Calif., Dec. 15, 2008  -- Calit2 researchers want to help doctors make house calls again, with one small, 21st-century modification. The doctor’s familiar black bag is being replaced with a software package that brings healthcare providers into patients’ homes via the Internet. The “pack-n-go” system also will allow doctors to receive continuous updates from selected medical devices linked to it. 

Ben Raphael
Bachman (right) demonstrates HBox's capabilities.

Tentatively dubbed “HBox,” the project seeks to make telemedicine options available to average individuals. By linking the software with medical devices – heart-rate, blood pressure or glucose monitors, for example – the system allows distant medical specialists to communicate with and monitor individuals in their homes or community clinics. “The idea is that anyone anywhere should have access to their doctor or a healthcare infrastructure at any time,” says Mark Bachman, project team leader.

Telemedicine is not a new concept. Systems exist that enable doctors to wirelessly connect with their patients, but they require high-speed T1 data transmission lines and expensive teleconferencing systems – criteria that place them out of the reach of all but the largest institutions. 

HBox advances the idea of “personal telemedicine,” Bachman says. “This is where next-generation telemedicine is heading.”

Genome Diagram
Verizon rep Gary George presents a check from the
Verizon Foundation. The collaboration will allow 
HBox to help underserved Orange County 
residents obtain medical care.

The use of IT to improve daily life recently attracted the attention of the Verizon Foundation, which awarded Calit2 a $50,000 healthcare and accessibility grant to further the project.

Verizon liaison Gary George says the broadband communication company’s philanthropic arm was impressed by HBox’s potential to help underserved residents obtain health care. The funding will be used to install and test an HBox prototype in a Costa Mesa, Calif. free medical clinic run by Share Our Selves (SOS).

“The clinic helps people who can’t afford to go to a doctor or hospital,” George says. “Our hope is that UCI can help the underserved communities in the area benefit from the telemedicine that can be used in these clinics.”

Researchers are building the system on the highly popular Web 2.0 platform, which means it works with all browsers, including Windows, Linux and Mac, as well as Web-enabled cell phones. “Web 2.0 is an incredible standard that ties together video, animation, interactive applications, programming – everything,” Bachman says. “You can access many different types of content with one platform. That was impossible several years ago.”

HBox will utilize existing infrastructure – cable, DSL and Wi-Fi Internet connections – making it affordable and easy to use. The ultimate success of the system, however, depends on the availability of compatible medical devices, so all software code is open-source. This makes it simple for medical device manufacturers to build communication capabilities into their products. “We want to make it as easy as possible for them,” says Bachman.  Eventually, if researchers are successful, HBox will stream information on patients’ blood pressure, weight, mobility, stability, blood-sugar levels and more back to their doctors.

Bachman envisions a day when doctors will write prescriptions for technology along with prescriptions for medication. “If [the patient] needs a heart monitor, [he] would take the prescription for it down to the pharmacy, take the device home and plug it in. That way, the doctor can check the patients’ progress.”

HBox needs nothing more than a browser for simple doctor-to-patient communication. When supplementary monitoring devices are used, however, the system requires a server to translate data from the device into Web 2.0-compliant language for transmission to the doctor. This server can double as a WI-Fi router and/or cable converter, potentially replacing consumer set-top boxes or TiVo says Bachman. “It can give people access to their cable, DVDs and doctors, all in the same package.”

“Telemedicine is a distributed system that empowers people to take control of their own health care,” says Calit2 Irvine director G.P. Li, who has made telemedicine an important research priority for the institute. “Doctor visits are important for maintaining a healthy lifestyle as well as for treating illness. HBox will enable anyone, regardless of where they live or what their circumstances are, to easily access a wide spectrum of medical services.”