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The possibility that mobile health technology could share the spotlight with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning surfaced this week when the National Football League announced that it would donate $30 million in funding for medical research to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH). The unrestricted gift will go to the FNIH's new Sports and Health Research Program.
While specific plans for research haven't been announced, potential subjects include concussion detection, management and treatment; the relationship between traumatic brain injury and late-life neurodegenerative disorders (such as Alzheimer's disease); sudden cardiac death in young athletes; heat and hydration-related illness; chronic degenerative joint disease cause by athletic injuries, the transition from acute to chronic pain; and the detection and health effects of performance-enhancing substances.
While mHealth isn't mentioned specifically in the NFL announcement, the technology is being used for like-minded goals in various programs and institutions around the country – including the Mayo Clinic, which is studying the causes and effects of concussions and which recently employed wearable sensors from BodyMedia to collect data from a team of climbers ascending Mt. Everest. The University of Southern California's Center for Body Computing is also studying the uses of wearable sensors, and organizations like the Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance and the Center for Connected Health have held discussions on wearable health monitoring technology.
Eric Topol, chief academic officer of San Diego-based Scripps Health and a popular choice for healthcare-related conference keynotes, capped off this year's HIMSS conference and exhibition in Las Vegas with a talk that focused on the digital patient. In his speech, he challenged doctors to embrace digital technology and use those tools – including wearable monitors and devices that can transmit vital signs and other data – to their advantage.
The sports world is rife with situations where mHealth technology can be put to use. Both the NFL and the National Hockey League are dealing with a rash of concussions caused by in-game collisions and hits to the head, and both have faced scrutiny over the long-term effects to retired athletes (This week's Sports Illustrated offers a story on the wives and girlfriends of past NFL players who are now helping them cope with memory loss and other neurological issues). And every now and then comes a story of a high school athlete collapsing and often dying because of a previously undetected heart condition.
How about a device that measures the effects of a hit to an athlete's head, or a sensor that can detect abnormal heart activity in athletes while they're engaged in sports? Could runners, cyclists and soccer players be aided by sensors that tell them when they're performance is affected by a lack of hydration? Could baseball and football players use monitors to detect the strain on their arms and legs, possibly signaling a blown tendon or torn muscle before it happens?
The FNIH supports the National Institutes for Health by facilitating public-private partnerships for biomedical research and training, and has been instrumental in the annual mHealth World Congress. In a commentary piece written for the 2011 mHealth Summit Show Dailies, William Riley of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and Wendy Nilsen of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research highlighted the potential of mHealth to solve long-standing health issues.
"NIH … recognizes that a major opportunity also arises from the potential of mobile and wireless health technologies to continuously monitor chronic medical conditions around the world, as well as to implement disease management plans that capitalize on this expanded information," they wrote. "Chronic disease conditions have been recognized in the developed world as a major source of morbidity and mortality. Similarly, in the low- and middle-income countries, chronic disease is increasingly being cited as an emerging problem and a major component of disease burden.
"NIH is aware of the need for rigorous mHealth research that examines the potential, as well as the challenges, of harnessing mobile technologies to improve global health outcomes is critical to global health. NIH encourages both the technology developers and the researchers to start with problems that demand solving, so that the field is needs-driven, rather than product-driven," they continued. "With its potential for providing low-cost, high quality data to enhance health research and improve health outcomes around the world, mobile/wireless health is of growing interest to the NIH, especially since many of these technologies apply to multiple diseases and conditions."
Now, thanks to the NFL, the NIH has the funding – and the high-profile publicity – to put mHealth to the test.
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