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Omron looks to enhance blood pressure monitors

Posted: 25 Nov 2013 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Omron? blood pressure monitor? home healthcare?

Omron, an electronic component supplier based in Kyoto, has a number of home healthcare products under its name. One in particular is its flagship blood pressure monitor for home-use that sports a decidedly low-tech look compared to a host of emerging digital medical electronics such as a wireless patch for ECG monitoring (developed by IMEC), implantable sensors for blood pressure readings (designed by Fiso Technologies) and contact lenses to treat glaucoma (developed by STMicroelectronics).

But don't be fooled, stated Toshikazu Shiga, advisory technology specialist at Omron. In order to win the next-generation smart healthcare battle, Shiga cautioned, it matters not so much what your technology can sense. More important is the exact data your technology needs to "sense, track, accumulate, analyze and send" to doctors who are treating patients' chronic, lifestyle illnesses.

Shiga joked that new advances such as implantable medical electronics devices pose a serious competitive challenge, at least on the surface. He said that they "look disruptive enough to blow a little company like Omron away."

In a brief interview with EE Times after his keynote, Shiga added that Omron has been closely tracking each and every emerging medical electronics startup. He acknowledged that Omron sees them as its potential acquisition targets.

Omron is looking specifically for a company or a startup with a strong relationship with mainstream experts in the medical community, Shiga noted. "I am talking about ties with doctors who can play a central role in the medical community, not the ones working in peripherals."

Asked how well Omron itself is wired into the medical community, especially beyond Japan, Shiga said with confidence: "We are not just wired. We take a firm grip on them." He explained that decades of Omron's work on blood pressure monitors have earned the implicit trust of the majority of doctors.

Shiga laid out in his speech how Omron sees the medical electronics battleground will shake out in the future.

In Omron's view, three distinct industry groups are after the healthcare market: vendors that build home-use sensing devices (e.g., Omron, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Roche); network service providers and those that work on the big data in the cloud (e.g., IBM, Microsoft); and medical technology companies that build systems to control illness (e.g., General Electric, Siemens, Philips, Medtronics).

"If GE or Siemens ends up becoming the most dominant player controlling next-generation smart healthcare, I'm convinced that they'll eventually start giving away—for free—home sensing devices like the blood pressure monitors we make. If the network service provider takes ultimate control, the same thing would happen," said Shiga.

For home healthcare product suppliers such as Omron to survive the turmoil, "We must identify and capture, early on, the types of data doctors need, and accumulate it long enough to build the meaningful database the medical community finds useful and trusts."

Omron blood pressure monitor

Three distinct industry groups—sensing, network and control—are after the healthcare market. (Source: Omron).

Fortunately, blood pressure is a vital sign doctors will always need. Further, because a patient's blood pressure fluctuates even during the same day, cumulative data becomes valuable information that helps doctors diagnose potential medical conditions.

Rather than having patients manually record and submit their blood pressure data to doctors (Shiga said patients tend to check their blood pressures often, so that they can cherry-pick numbers they think their doctors like), senior citizens are now put on "Wellness Link," a platform for a healthcare service system Omron and NTT Docomo jointly developed in Japan. By using a home-use blood pressure monitoring device embedded with a 3G modem, senior citizens simply push a button to check their own pressure, with data automatically transmitted to "Media Link" used by doctors, Shiga explained.

Both Wellness Link and Media Link use the same platform, but the former is for consumers to collect data at home, while the latter runs applications to be used by doctors in clinics and hospitals.

Japan is already showing a blueprint of where many advanced countries are likely to end up—as its rapidly increasing number of senior citizens results in the unsustainable growth of healthcare costs. From 2005 to 2055, Shiga notes, the Japanese population will decrease by 30 percent, while the peak age of the nation's population in 2055 will be in the 80s.

To manage soaring costs, individuals will be pressured to take responsibility for their own health, Shiga believes. The key to smart healthcare will require everyone to keep a personal healthcare record at home, which then will be used by doctors responsible for managing illness. As the population ages, the biggest threat to people's health will be so-called "lifestyle" illnesses, according to Shiga. Such illnesses include stroke, heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and chronic renal failures.

In managing life-related diseases, it's important for individuals to understand their own lifestyle data, said Shiga. That includes: how well they sleep every day; how much they eat; and how much they exercise. "Everyone understands the importance of sleep, meals, and exercise in general terms; but very few take action, because they don't keep their own personal records, and they don't see it as their own problem."

Omron hopes to play a critical role in developing a slew of new, easy-to-use sensing devices for consumers. Meanwhile the company defines its mission as the accumulation of such essential data and making it available in a format the medical community will find easy to use.

Beyond blood pressures, Shiga was asked by EE Times what else Omron believes important to track electronically—data points deemed necessary by the medical community in managing lifestyle illnesses such as diabetes. "Obviously, for one, the blood sugar level. There are a few more things, but we are keeping them confidential for now."

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