|Companies ranging from chip maker Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) and medical-device giant Medtronic Inc. (MDT) see an opportunity in bringing wireless connectivity to medical devices such as blood-sugar monitors and sending that information to doctors, hospitals or smartphones like Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) iPhone and Research In Motion Ltd.'s (RIMM) Blackberry.
"We're absolutely headed in that direction," said Christopher O'Connell, group president for diabetes and other device franchises at Medtronic.
Medicine is an attractive area for tech companies amid estimates the market for wirelessly relaying health-care information could grow to nearly $1 billion over the next five years, according to ABI Research analyst Stan Schatt. Diabetes is particularly appealing because it's a growing problem that already affects 7.8% of the U.S. population, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Aside from getting blood-sugar readings on smartphones, future innovations could include a Bluetooth connection for blood-sugar monitors or cellular chips within such devices to relay information right to doctors or hospitals.
Technical challenges remain, though, as do questions about possible regulatory oversight and whether all this will prove helpful for patients.
"A lot of companies are peddling technology for technology's sake," said Anand Iyer, president and chief operating officer of closely held WellDoc Communications Inc., which is developing a number of wireless medical products. "That's not going to work."
Typically, diabetics test their blood sugar through occasional finger-stick tests read by meters commonly available at pharmacies. But Medtronic and two other companies - DexCom Inc. (DXCM) and Abbott Laboratories (ABT) - sell so-called "continuous glucose monitors" in the U.S. that involve small sensors patients wear to steadily monitor blood sugar.
That information could be headed toward smartphones and other devices. Medtronic's promotional material, for example, envisions people reading their blood-sugar levels on a Blackberry or a dashboard-mounted screen.
DexCom also is looking into getting blood-sugar data onto phones, said Steve Pacelli, that company's chief administrative officer. "I would call it a fairly active program here," he said.
Among the technical hurdles is getting a Bluetooth transmitter on blood-sugar sensors that would have enough power without making sensors bigger, and hence less appealing for patients Qualcomm and its partners are also looking into adding a Bluetooth connection to blood sugar monitors to tie them into phones.
Down the line, companies such as Qualcomm are looking to put cellular chips in blood-sugar meters themselves, creating a potential full-time data connection with doctors and hospitals. Meters also could monitor when a patient is running low on test strips or insulin and automatically order a refill. Furthermore, industry players are thinking with the idea of building a meter directly into a phone.