Patients, Doctors and Textside Manner
By David Pescovitz, Mon Jun 21 14:45:00 GMT 2004

Researchers test texting to improve communication between doctors and patients.

Italian researchers have announced a new Wireless Health Outcomes Monitoring System (WHOMS) designed to help doctors keep track of their patients' well-being via mobile phone. Developed by communications firm Reply-planeT, and the Instituto Nazionale Tumori, the idea is simple: The physician texts a questionnaire to a patient's handset. The questions ask the patient to rate his or her appetite, weight gain or loss, ability to sleep, and other factors. Once completed, the results are collated and available on a secure Web site for the physician to access. (A demonstration of the system is available here.)

According to a press release issued by BioMed Central, the journal that published the results of a user study, "the graphic display of the patients' information gives doctors a quick overview of how the patients' symptoms are evolving. If any patient has seriously modified symptoms, a flashing light will appear by their name. This should help doctors to prioritise those in serious need."

The researchers tested the system with all 97 cancer in-patients at the Instituto, though almost half of those individuals bailed out before beginning the survey, apparently because they weren't familiar with the technology. However, everyone who started the survey completed it. According to the researchers, that's a good prognosis for future success.

Still, usability is one thing and usefulness is something else. Humans are notoriously tricky to quantify. Wireless biosensors and "smart clothing" that keep tabs on patients' vital signs have been available for quite some time. It's the quality of life variables--things like mood and pain--that are harder to communicate through surveys and standardized forms.

"You cannot really capture the way a patient feels in a text message, and although this seems like a sensible way of working around the limitations of this form of communication, there is a danger that you are generating yet more stuff that needs to be analysed and assessed," Dr Paul Cundy, a representative of the the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practicioners, told BBC News Online.