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Can GPS Tracking Reduce Asthma Attacks?

A new device notes when and where you use your inhaler, so you can create a map of when and where it’s hardest to breathe.

Can GPS Tracking Reduce Asthma Attacks?

About 25 million Americans suffer from asthma, but everyone’s triggers are different. Some people start wheezing when they’re around household pets or spend too long in a dusty basement. Others get attacks severe enough to send them to the emergency room after inhaling tobacco smoke or air pollution. The chronic respiratory condition, which inflames airways and makes it difficult to breathe, costs Americans about $50 billion a year in public health costs.

To help people figure out and better avoid their triggers, a startup in Madison, Wisconsin, called Asthmapolis has developed a small sensor that attaches to the top of their inhaler and tracks the exact time and location when they use it. "We provide them with a view of what they are doing as well as where people are having asthma symptoms throughout the city," says Asthmapolis CEO David van Sickle, whose device just received FDA approval in July, but is still only available to about 1,000 people enrolled in trials in Louisville and Sacramento. (Asthmapolis is working to make the device available more broadly through partnerships with health providers this fall.) The information is then downloaded to their smartphone so people can better track not only how often they use their inhaler, but also which environmental triggers might have exacerbated their symptoms. A personalized map shows hotspots where people use their inhaler most often, and text messages can remind them to take their daily anti-inflammatory medication.

The Asthmapolis sensor is the latest entry in the growing self-tracking movement, which is also the theme of a symposium at Stanford University’s School of Medicine later this month. The idea is that giving patients better tools to monitor their conditions will help them lead healthier lives. "Our goal is to improve people’s quality of life by eliminating unnecessary suffering," says van Sickle. According to one study Asthmapolis conducted in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control in 2009, most attacks occur outside the home, and people in rural areas have more frequent attacks than those in urban areas. Van Sickle says that among the 40 participants in the four-month study, which has not yet been published, uncontrolled symptoms dropped from 62% to 25% while using the sensor.

While Asthmapolis users are free to keep their data private, they can also opt-in to share their personal data with other Asthmapolis users as well as with their physician. In order to keep costs down for patients, the Asthmapolis sensor will only be available through health plans. The device’s FDA approval this summer should help get more plans on board and make Asthmapolis’s entry into participatory health care a reality.