New health care tools are using geographic information system technology to gather data on how environmental factors could affect patients' health, the Washington Post reports.
The tools are part of a growing field called geomedicine, which physicians and researchers hope will allow for more tailored diagnoses and treatment regimens.
Examples of New Tools
In July 2012, FDA approved an asthma inhaler equipped with Bluetooth technology. The device sends information to a Web portal that can display when and where patients used their inhalers.
David Van Sickle -- an epidemiologist who invented the device and founder of Asthmapolis, the company that manufactures the inhalers -- said the tool will provide physicians with data on potential environmental causes of asthma attacks and allow them to plan treatment accordingly.
He said, "It's these kinds of insights that we think will help us understand the origins of the disease."
Bill Davenhall -- a manager at Esri, a geographic IT software company -- has led the development of a mobile application that can integrate the places a person has lived with reports of toxins found within three miles of that area. Davenhall has been collaborating with Loma Linda University Medical Center in California on strategies to integrate the technology into patient treatment.
Dora Barilla -- director of community health development at Loma Linda -- said that by early March, the hospital plans to launch a software system that will map the health status and local environments of more than one million patients. The hospital will display information on disease hot spots on its website.
Some industry experts believe that geographic data eventually will be incorporated into patients' electronic health records.
Concerns About Privacy
Despite the potential benefits of health care tools that use geographic data, some experts have expressed concern that such devices could pose significant patient privacy risks.
Kate Black -- an attorney specializing in health privacy at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT -- said that location data from certain apps could be sold to third parties without users' knowledge or consent. According to Black, such data could be used against individuals. She said that if companies "learn that you've lived in these 14 neighborhoods, exposed to these 14 different risks, that might be the basis for denying you [health insurance] coverage."
Black added, "These apps need to be very clear about the data they use and whether they are disclosing it and how it will be used. Most of these apps don't do that."
Barilla noted that because privacy is a significant concern with geomedicine tools, administrators at Loma Linda chose not to directly link the tools to EHRs (MacDonald, Washington Post, 2/4).