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Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Easy GPeasy - checks at the touch of a button

Digital innovations expected to change face of system in next 20 years.

A future where a health check-up could take just a few taps of your smartphone has moved a step closer.

AUT University has launched its Centre for eHealth, bringing together researchers with health sector partners to share developments in innovation.

The centre will build on work by the Ministry of Health's IT Health Board, which has overseen a project that will give patients of nearly all GP practices access to their records through portals.

Dozens of researchers at AUT, including experts in IT, engineering, business, design and infomatics, will work together on projects using technology to improve the health system.

The centre's director, Associate Professor Duncan Babbage, said some of these tools were already available in our smartphones.

"Billions of people have a super-computer in their pocket that they are never more than a metre away from at any point of the day," he said.

"So people have the capacity to track information about their health, and have an aid that can support them in making better decisions."

Smartphone apps could count calories, advise and remind users about diets, or let them know how much exercise they were getting.

"There's been an explosion of people that are using the basic activity trackers that come with the new iPhone 5."

AUT researchers had taken this further by developing projects such as the Stroke Riskometer app, which evaluated age, gender, ethnicity, family history and lifestyle to calculate stroke risk.

Another innovation was an upper arm cuff that measured not only blood pressure in the arm, but also blood pressure near the heart.

"AUT has had a large number of research groups that have been working in this area for quite some time," Professor Babbage said. "What we recognised with their value was that we could capitalise even further into inter-disciplinary collaboration."

Patients living in rural communities and users of mental health support services are expected to be among the first to benefit.

Professor Babbage expected digital innovations would change the face of the health system in the next two decades. With the sector facing a growing and costly health burden, it was imperative the country changed the way it was delivering health services.

"There is no possibility that we are going to continue to be able to have the same kind of ratio we currently have of health professionals to how many people they are supporting."

Technology gives healthy edge

Calculate your stroke risk
The Stroke Riskometer app, the brainchild of Professor Valery Feigin, lets users assess their individual stroke risk on a smartphone or tablet. It evaluates factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, family history and lifestyle, and is already being used by health-conscious people in more than 70 countries. The app utilises modern mobile technologies for individually tailored stroke, cardiovascular disease and dementia prevention and, by the end of the year, AUT University plans to translate it into an additional 11 languages.

Off the cuff - a better way to monitor heart attack risk
AUT University researchers have developed an upper arm cuff to measure not only blood pressure in the arm, but also blood pressure near the heart, the stiffness of the arterial system, and how much work the heart has to do to pump blood. Cardiovascular disease kills about one in three people and is the leading cause of deaths globally, yet research has shown that approximately 80 per cent of events occur in those we classify as low risk. The multiple factors measured by the cuff are expected to be more directly related to an individual's state of cardiovascular risk, and will allow better healthcare decisions to be made.

Keeping operating theatres on track
Radio frequency identification technology is used widely in the auto-identification and tracking of objects, such as library books, high-value cash notes to tackle counterfeiting and terrorism, and swipe cards for building access. Soon it could also be used to enhance safety and efficiency in our hospitals' operating theatres. AUT University's Associate Professor Dave Parry is collaborating with Professor Alan Merry of the University of Auckland to explore the use of unobtrusive RFID tags in tracking the activity of anaesthetists and anaesthetic technicians during surgical procedures - research that could enable significantly reduced load during high stress and high risk stages of surgery.

Offering help in 160 characters
Inbound text messages now outweigh calls made to Youthline. Texts from young New Zealanders seeking help number 385,000 each year, compared with just 48,000 phone calls. AUT University is working with Youthline to develop the communication skills of its volunteers, to ensure young people get the help they need - particularly over a constrained text medium. Dr Ailsa Haxell is working with Youthline to develop an online teaching programme, designed to enable counsellors to respond effectively to young people through the mediums they elect to use. She said Youthline's text services could provide long-term support, with retained messages giving recipients a "pocket full of affirmations" to refer to in times of trouble.

- NZ Herald

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