Constitutional Health Network:
Big Medicine Wants to Videotape You—And It's Not a Bad Thing

Several years ago, my mother was hospitalized with pneumonia. My father had already passed on, and I spent several days and nights trying to fill his shoes at her bedside in the hospital ward. I still remember the dizzying array of gadgets and monitors she was connected to. Gadgets to measure her pulse. Gadgets to measure the amount of oxygen in her blood. Gadgets to measure God knows what else. Just getting up to go to the bathroom was a major chore that required a nurse to come in and unhook everything.

Being connected to all that technology was uncomfortable and stressful. It made it impossible for her to get comfortable. It made sleep difficult—every time she turned over, something came unhooked. The lights and beeps from the monitors kept her awake too. Then of course there were the constant interruptions of nurses coming in to read the monitors and write down what they said. And each time they left, the nurses would say the same thing: “Get some rest.”

It would have been laughable if it hadn’t been so frustrating.

The fact of the matter is that being in the hospital is exhausting. Just stepping through the doors guarantees you’ll be connected to half a dozen different machines whether you’re there for brain surgery or to have a baby. Connecting you to machines means sticking things on you—like sensors and monitors, all connected to wires. And THAT means actual rest is out of the question. When Mom came home after her three-day stay, she slept for a solid twelve hours—she was that worn out by the experience.

But Oxehealth—a spinoff of the University of Oxford in England—thinks they may have a solution that will do away with all those wires and sensors and let hospital patients get the rest they need. The system combines new software with some very old-school hardware: a camera.

Say “Cheese!”

Now, I’m not normally a fan of any technology intended to monitor or track us. I’ve made my feelings on things like the new “smart pills” clear in other posts. So it may surprise you to find that I think this new technology is actually a great idea—at least up to a point. When they start installing monitors like this in our televisions or something similar, then I’ll be up in arms. But if for the purposes it’s being marketed for it might be a real step forward. Here’s how it works:

Put simply, special software analyzes the video feed from a camera and calculates vital signs from what it sees. The system currently measures pulse, respiration, and oxygen levels in the blood. The company is now working on a version that will also measure temperature and blood pressure.

You’re probably wondering how you can determine some of these vitals just from a picture. I know I did, when I first heard about the system. Respiration is easy—the software just needs to count how many breaths per minute a person takes. But how can you measure the other vitals without some kind of hands-on monitor? You certainly can’t guess a person’s blood oxygen level just by looking.

Part of the answer is that the camera can recognize and analyze very subtle shades of color. And to monitor oxygenation, that’s exactly what it will do—analyze the color of the patient’s skin. The camera can pick up tiny variations and fluctuations that are imperceptible to the human eye and can also use this information to gauge pulse rate. In testing, it’s been accurate to within two breaths and three heartbeats per minute.

Temperature and blood pressure monitoring are still in development and testing but are expected to round out the package in the near future. It’s not clear just how blood pressure will be tracked, but the cameras already use infrared to monitor in the dark, so gauging temperature shouldn’t be a problem. The system is currently being tested in several hospitals throughout the UK with excellent results. And doctors are hoping that not only will it make hospital stays easier on patients—and nurses—but that it may be able to catch potential problems before they’re noticeable by current standards.

Hospitals aren’t the only places we may see this

The new technology is also being marketed as the next generation in baby monitors.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I think that we are overly-reliant on technology and overprotective when it comes to our kids. And call me old-fashioned, but I think the best way to watch over our kids isn’t to put them alone in another room with a “baby monitor.” I think we should be willing to sacrifice a little privacy and quiet and keep them near us in our own rooms.

On the other hand, I’ve experienced a SIDS death in the family. I can see where such a monitor—one that would sound an alarm if Baby stops breathing—could bring new parents peace of mind. And as the parent of a now grown-up asthmatic, I can see where it could be invaluable for the parents of some chronically or critically ill children.

Law enforcement and mental health facilities too are getting a test-run of this new technology. Law enforcement is using it to monitor prisoners on suicide watch or the seriously intoxicated who might end up with alcohol poisoning. Mental health facilities are testing it as a way to monitor reactions to medication changes.

I’m much more torn about these two proposed uses. But when it comes to freeing hospital patients from wires and sensors and intrusive vitals checks at all hours of the day and night, I’m all for it.

What do YOU think of this new technology? A step forward in routine hospital care, or another step toward 24/7 monitoring by Big Brother?

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