South to the Future

For Baby Boomers, the Doctor Is in ... the Bathroom

Dallas, Texas -- As members of the nation's largest and most influential demographic get within spitting distance of their golden years, new medical information appliances are becoming available to help baby boomers monitor their health.

Concerned about gum disease? Then let your electric toothbrush be on the lookout for elevated levels of bacteria in your mouth. If the device senses periodontal peril, the data is sent via your Internet connection to your dentist, who then calls you to schedule an appointment.

While diabetics are already wearing sensors under the skin to provide accurate, real time measures of glucose levels, Internet-ready health appliances are just now making their way into the daily lives of those presumed healthy until proven chemically unbalanced.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources predicts that health care spending will double by 2007. This rapid expansion has spurred explosive growth in what industry analysts are calling the "self-care" market. HMOs have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, claiming that disease-management tools promote early detection and keep treatment costs down.

Potentially the most far-reaching of the smart fixtures heading for the bathroom is the Head's Up, a toilet that analyzes human waste and beams the results to a personalized medical database. Because the manufacturer of this medical information management system, BioAmerica, boasts contracts with the nation's largest HMOs, a health-conscious consumer's personal physician is never more than a trip to the bathroom away.

"The Internet has brought us into contact with a wealth of information from the outside," explains Jeff Hawkins, who designed the Head's Up fixture (and who is best known for his role in the creation of the Palm Pilot). "Now, it's time to establish an 'innernet' that will tell the wider world about what it is that goes on within us."

Sensors employed by the Head's Up were developed as part of a pioneering telemedicine program at the University of Texas. In conjunction with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the UT Medical School has been using a prototype smart toilet to provide drug screening and health monitoring for the past three years. The Correctional Managed Health Care Plan, the HMO the state uses for its prison population, says early disease detection cut inmate treatment costs by up to 40 percent.

Walter Vaughn, executive officer of the California State Personnel Board, cites the success of the Texas telemedicine project when explaining why the California government has contracted with BioAmerica to install diagnostic restroom equipment in its administrative offices statewide. "With what we'll know about our employees," Vaughn asserts, "we'll be able to save both money and lives."

Privacy advocates are skeptical about the proliferation of medical information systems and their possible impact on the rights of individuals. "Even though the companies that make these devices market them to homes, it's no coincidence that the first places we see them are in prisons and the workplace," warns Thomas Marlow, executive director of the Wireless Privacy Coalition.

BioAmerica disputes the WPC's claim, however, pointing to the family market as ripe for self-care health products. "Home pregnancy kits and HIV tests are now de rigueur," a company spokesperson remarks. "All we're doing is using wireless technology to connect products that people want with services they need, before they even know they need them."

South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments?

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