Helping Heart Patients Build a Tech Toolbox

Pharmacists can help patients with cardiovascular disease use technology to their advantage.

For the more than 82 million American adults with cardiovascular disease, managing heart health is a perennial, lifelong challenge. American Heart Month offers pharmacists an opportunity to check in with heart patients on their progress and offer new ideas for coping with obstacles and improving their overall health.

One concept that has been gaining steam over the past year is mobile health, or mHealth. The World Health Organization defines mHealth as “the provision of health services and information via mobile technologies such as mobile phones and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs).” Research shows that this targeted use of consumer technology can boost patient engagement, lower health care costs, and improve outcomes.

This is especially true among patients with heart disease, for whom regular tracking of blood pressure, weight, dietary intake and other vitals can help ward off a cardiac event. A variety of high-tech tools are available to help patients “know their numbers." Below are just a few examples that have been making waves lately:

Connected Monitors. Clean design and smartphone integration are hallmarks of today’s “connected” blood pressure monitors. Models offered by iHealth and Withings are compatible with Apple devices and come with bells and whistles that aim to make blood pressure monitoring as quick and enjoyable as possible. For patients who prefer to keep their phone calls and health stats separate, a basic at-home monitor will also do the trick, often at a lower cost.

Smartphone Apps. The app stores for Apple, Android, and Blackberry devices are packed with choices for patients who want their smartphone to double as a multipurpose medical device. Some of the most common, useful health apps replace pen-and-paper tracking, whereas others perform more complex duties. Apps in both categories are generally free or reasonably priced.

Many patients with a diagnosis of heart disease are advised to lose weight, and smartphones apps are uniquely suited for this purpose. LoseIt is popular among iPhone users; its database contains nutrition facts on more than 40,000 foods. Calorie Counter by FatSecret is a similar app that works on all smartphone platforms.

Exercise apps can be a great source of motivation for improving cardiovascular fitness, and many go beyond basic tracking capabilities. Instant Heart Rate, for example, measures pulse using a smartphone’s built-in camera—a function that could be used to help heart patients pace themselves during exercise.

Web-Based Tracking Systems. Recognizing the power of long-term data to spur behavioral change, developers have come up with several systems to help patients create, maintain, and share detailed records of health data. The American Heart Association’s Heart360 is a suite of secure, interactive online tools integrates with patients’ Microsoft HealthVault account. This “cardiovascular wellness center” allows patients to record their blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose, medication, weight, and physical activity levels.

Although manual entry is simple, patients can also automatically download their numbers from any HealthVault-compatible blood glucose meter, heart rate monitor, scale, or other device. These records can then be emailed to a health care provider, printed out to bring to appointments, or shared with a physician through the Microsoft HealthVault service. Physicians can also access medical records of those who have granted permission, facilitating better communication between office visits.

Of course, patients’ individual needs will vary based on a range of factors, from the types of devices they already own to their level of comfort with new technologies. In counseling sessions with heart patients, pharmacists should discuss these issues, as well as stumbling blocks patients have encountered that may be alleviated by the use of a smartphone app or online tracking tool.

mHealth is a rapidly growing area of interest for patients, health care providers, and technology companies alike—which means that options for patients are constantly in flux. As options increase, so does the need for pharmacists to intervene. By staying abreast of new developments, pharmacists can serve as a trusted resource on this new generation of disease management tools.