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NIEHS program featured at mHealth Summit

By L.H. Lazarus and Matt Goad
December 2010

David Balshaw, Ph.D.
Shown at an earlier meeting at NIEHS on systems biology, Balshaw oversees grants funding research at the intersection of technical advances and the environmental health sciences. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The NIEHS-led Exposure Biology Program was highlighted at the second annual mHealth Summit ( Exit NIEHS Nov. 8-10 in Washington, D.C., where health care professionals and researchers gathered to discuss the use of mobile devices in health care, as well as their application in personal exposure monitoring currently being explored by grantees supported by NIEHS and other NIH institutes and centers.

The NIH, Foundation for the NIH, and mHealth Alliance were event partners. Sponsors included a range of non-profits, associations, and corporations with interests in health care and mobile communication.

Exposure biology

The Exposure Biology Program, part of the NIH Genes Environment, and Health Initiative (GEI), funds grants for the development of innovative technologies to monitor the personal environment and the individual response to exposure. The initiative includes tools to determine environmental exposure to various chemicals, diet, physical activity, and psychosocial stress, as well as identify specific changes in the body's response to these factors.

In his opening address at the conference, NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., stressed the importance of NIEHS in the NIH GEI and gave examples of how these tools can change the health care enterprise.

The four distinguished keynote speakers included Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who discussed the focus of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on emerging global health issues that combine evolving technologies with new advances in biology and medicine. The foundation is a major donor to the GEI effort.

David Balshaw, Ph.D., program administrator for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT), attended the summit as a member of the organizing committee.

Cell phones and health care

"The major themes of the meeting," Balshaw explained, "included the discussion of practical implications of building an mHealth enterprise." Primary concerns involved security and privacy protection with a focus on state of the science and realities of what can and cannot be done today, as well as developing strategies to enhance the adaptation of mobile technologies in health care practice, he said.

Balshaw noted that there are 4.5 billion cell phones currently in use among the 6.5 billion people on the planet and that these numbers indicate cells phones are rapidly becoming a primary means of communication, especially in developing nations with a limited landline network. In many countries, mobile communication may be the only link to the outside world.

Unobtrusive monitoring devices utilizing cell phone technology have the potential to readily identify environmental exposures to agriculture pesticides and industrial wastes in the most vulnerable populations, such as children and farmers, and maintain open communication between patients and a distant health care provider.

As an example of mobile communication in prevention and treatment, Balshaw pointed to cell phones as an integral component in the text-for-baby program which makes vital information on infant care available to young mothers. This service consists of free texts on medical data, including reminders on baby health services, such as vaccination schedules and routine health checkups.

The NIEHS perspective on mHealth

Balshaw noted that, as it is currently implemented, mHealth focuses largely on clinical applications of technology for monitoring physiological parameters, patient compliance, and delivery of health-related information to patients. However, with the increased power and acceptance of wireless technologies and the development of new sensor systems, such as wearable chemical sensors enabling constant and immediate feedback about possible environmental influences on health, it becomes increasingly feasible to incorporate more information into clinical decision-making.

The use of wireless devices also enhances privacy and security. These are issues in countries lacking reliable means of communication and for research involving human subjects. In addition, the instant monitoring and messaging availability of cell phones becomes critical component in emergency situations.

(Matt Goad is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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