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Breathe Easier: New Smartphone App Could Help COPD Patients

Lisa Gillespie, WFPL

  Kentucky has the nation’s highest rate of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. But managing the disease and interpreting symptoms is often a challenge for people who suffer from the lung disease.

Enter a new smartphone app that aims to use technology to help COPD sufferers to recognize emergencies, and avoid unnecessary doctors’ or ER visits. The app made its debut earlier today, screening people at the Family Community Clinic in Butchertown.

One of the first testers was Barry. When he walked through the door at the clinic, he had already been diagnosed with COPD. We’re only using his first name to protect his privacy.

Barry is 62-years-old. He said he started smoking at age 25, and later took a job in Rubbertown making paper bags where he inhaled chemicals daily. He blames the combination of smoking and industrial work for his health problems.

“Working with chemicals, breathing it in, yea, you get [COPD],” Barry said.

All that exposure has caused Barry’s lungs to slowly harden and tighten. Sometimes, it’s very hard for him to breath, especially on certain days.

“Days like this: rainy days, cloudy days, hot days [are not good], but a good sunny day, you’ll be all right,” Barry said.

A Chronic Problem For Kentuckians

COPD is prevalent in Kentucky. In 2011, almost ten percent of people in the commonwealth had COPD – the highest rate in the nation, followed by Alabama. And in 2015, almost a quarter of Kentuckians with COPD reported visiting the emergency room because of that condition and related emphysema.

Ted Smith is the CEO of Revon Systems, a tech company based in East Louisville, and the developer of the “Smart COPD” app. The app is designed on a simple premise: that some of those emergency room visits could have been prevented if people were able to track their symptoms.

“The focus of the app is helping you keep track of whether your systems are starting to deteriorate so that you don’t have to get to a point where you have to go to the hospital for emergency care” Smith said.

When you open the app, it poses a series of questions: “Shortness of breath?” “Cough?” and “Running nose or feeling like you have a cold?” It also asks for temperature, and for users to punch in the readings from a separate device that measures oxygen saturation and heart rate.

Finally, one of three messages comes up: “Call 911 or notify your doctor,” “call your doctor,” or, “Don’t need medical help right now.”

It’s simple, and requires only a cell phone and a cheap finger oxygen and heart rate monitor.

‘Not designer technology for rich people’

Family Community Clinic Executive Director Becky Montague said she can see the app working for her patients. The clinic is one of the only places in the region that doesn’t charge anything for medical care, so they end up caring for the approximately 80,000 people in the Louisville Metro Area that don’t have health insurance. She said the majority of her patients have a cell phone.

“People have telephones, they’re our life line. So putting a self-management tool on a cell phone is just a genius idea,” Montague said.

Smith said the clinic’s patients are the ones he wants to reach the most.

“The majority of digital health technologies have been created for those that are commercially insured, typically these are expensive,” Smith said. “[Smart COPD] is not designer technology for rich people, it’s good technology for everybody.”

Barry–like many low-income Americans–has a cell phone obtained through Medicaid. Smith said these phones don’t come with health-related apps already downloaded, but they could. He sees that as a possible opportunity for Smart COPD to reach more people with low-incomes.

“If there’s one thing I wish for, it’s that we take advantage of something we’re already paying for as a society and turn it into health care,” Smith said.

On Friday, six people were screened at the Family Community Clinic. They’ll be part of a pilot study, and the clinic will follow up with them to measure the outcome of using the Smart COPD app.

Barry, in the meantime, manages with a daily inhaler and routine check-ups at the clinic. He’s interested in the Smart COPD app, and he left the clinic with information on how to use and download it. His cell phone doesn’t work very well, but even so, he has access to people who can download the app if he needs it.

“That’s where my nieces come in,” Barry said. “They got smart phones and if I need information, they can pull it up for me.”

Interested? Search for ‘Revon Systems’ in your App store and look for the “Smart COPD” app.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter. Most recently, she was a reporter for Kaiser Health News. During her career, Gillespie has covered all things health — from Medicaid and Medicare payment policy and rural hospital closures to science funding and the dietary supplement market.
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