Intelligent Asthma Inhalers


For chronic respiratory diseases like asthma, patients usually end up self-managing their medications, administering as necessary to keep their condition in check. Many patients with persistent respiratory disease are prescribed two types of medications: controller medications, which are taken daily, and rescue medications taken as needed when symptoms persist. It can sometimes be difficult for patients to keep track of their use of each type of medication. Similarly, although a physician can prescribe a respiratory medication, they have no control over whether or not that prescription is taken consistently. Consistent use of controller medications is key to maintaining control over the condition and reducing the underlying inflammation in the lungs.

The technology behind Inhalers isn’t always something that is thought of as leaping forward in any dramatic way, but the emergence of “smart,” digitalized inhalers has led to a new way of considering the equipment available for asthma and COPD patients. In a recent interview with ADVANCE, Garth Sutherland, CEO of Smartinhaler, provider of the Nexus6 Limited, and an asthma patient himself, shed light on the uses of smart technology for inhaler users and the potential of the technology for the rest of the field. Operating on multiple levels and performing a variety of functions, these intelligent inhalers fulfill several needs in the healthcare community.

“From my own perspective as a patient, I identified a number of unmet needs with respect to managing my own respiratory condition,” said Sutherland. “And, so, the Smartinhaler came about as an effort to try and address those unmet needs.”

The concept of intelligent inhalers is based on providing patients and physicians a means of automatically tracking medication usage, providing patients and physicians with reliable information to improve the management of the condition. This allows the inhalers to play a variety of roles in the healthcare industry. Intelligent inhalers function as a tool for prescribing physicians to better understand how their patients are using their medications. From this, they can identify patients who are not adhering to the prescribed medication and those who may benefit from early intervention to avoid an unscheduled hospital visit. For patients, the technology acts an automated diary and medicinal alarm clock, reminding them to stay current on their controller medications as prescribed. Researchers can also use the monitoring technology as a gold standard for collecting data in clinical trials.

“I really like to simplify it as ‘track and remind.’ It tracks your medication – not just the rescue medication, but the controller medication usage as well,” continued Sutherland. “And it reminds in terms of prompting the patients using the controller medications to take them regularly as prescribed.”

For those involved across the board – patients, physicians, healthcare organizations, clinical researchers, etc. – the issue of sub-optimal medication adherence remains an important facet in coping with a respiratory disease. As Sutherland described it, the “track and remind” style of Smartinhaler, Nexus6 Limited’s respiratory software platform, has a significant impact on patient adherence, ensuring better results from the prescribed medications. Intelligent inhalers are universal, portable and can be accessed via apps for your phone or tablet.

“Our technology comprises three major parts. One is the device itself, the intelligent inhaler piece, which is an electronic device and, from Nexus6’s perspective, it’s a sensor,” explained Sutherland. “It’s really an accessory to a prescription inhaler, and it’s battery-powered, and it has a small screen one it, and it can play ringtone reminders, and it has wireless communications built into it. The second part is the Smartphone and tablet Apps that act as a patient and physician interface, and thirdly there is the website where all the data is stored securely and processed for rich reporting.”

Similar to advancements across the medical industry, enhancements to intelligent inhalers are becoming more pronounced as the technology improves. As medical equipment becomes more integrated and connected on a large scale, the monitoring capabilities provided by “smart” inhalers stand to change the way physicians treat respiratory patients. In his interview, Sutherland compared the evolution of his company’s Smartinhaler platform to advancements from the original mobile phones to the smart phone technology we have today.

“The technology is evolving quickly,” commented Sutherland. “When we look back at the initial devices that we built a number of years ago, they were large devices. They were, I guess, equivalent in many ways to the initial mobile phones, which used to be called ‘the brick.’ So, what we’ve seen is, simply, our devices are getting a lot smaller, easier to use and have more features.”

Despite being a somewhat recent technology in the realm of medical equipment, intelligent inhalers are already positioned to be more readily incorporated into electronic health records (EHRs) in hospitals and healthcare facilities. The major limitation of this isn’t necessarily with the inhalers, but rather the varying EHR platforms available from facility to facility. Essentially, relaying information throughout a facility or healthcare network has become a substantial obstacle. As electronic communication between areas of the healthcare industry improves, however, the accessibility of data from intelligent inhaler reports will see a smoother assimilation.

As far as the future of the technology goes, the trend towards a “deliberate drug delivery device” is becoming more prominent. Being cloud-based and compatible with smartphone apps, the Smartinhaler data is readily available to both patients and authorized prescribing physicians. With the emergence of a number of different intelligent inhaler platforms from several different vendors, Sutherland predicted a move towards intelligent drug delivery as the market grows.

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“If we think about the healthcare system at large, it’s still challenging to get this type of data all the way through back into healthcare professional systems,” said Sutherland. “So, if we look forward to the future, we’ll see a lot more integration across the various healthcare silos.”

Intelligent technology has etched out a path in the industry as reliable, mobile equipment capable of performing in a variety of circumstances. In his interview, Sutherland discussed the idea of “smart” interfaces, bringing a level of accessibility and perspective across healthcare facilities. The major impact of intelligent technology spanning hospital systems comes down to the integration of digital health solutions on the broad scale allowing both providers and patients to keep track of medical data in a more efficient way.

Chronic respiratory illnesses like asthma affect patients all over the world. The primary benefit of intelligent technology for inhalers is, as Sutherland described the Nexus6 Smartinhaler, “to increase adherence to respiratory medications.” By utilizing a “track and remind” style, intelligent inhalers not only act as a reminder for patients, but keep physicians in the loop by providing accurate data. As the healthcare industry continues to shift towards electronic information sharing systems like the EHR, smart technology in respiratory care – as well as in the medical field as a whole – stands to leave a considerable mark on future modalities.

Michael Jones is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact: Mjones@advanceweb.com

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