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How your car could help you stay healthy

Mary Lou Jay

People with chronic conditions like diabetes or asthma need to keep a close eye on certain indicators to keep their illnesses in check. In the not-too-distant future, they could be getting some help from an unlikely source — their vehicles.

Ford Motor Co. recently announced it’s developing medical applications for its Ford SYNC system. The applications would help drivers monitor certain conditions and gain access to helpful medical information as they’re traveling.

In Ford vehicles already equipped with SYNC, drivers currently use Bluetooth technology and simple voice commands to make hands-free cell phone calls or to get information like turn-by-turn directions to a destination via Google maps. Ford hopes to expand SYNC capabilities so that drivers could connect with health resources ranging from glucose monitoring devices to allergen alerts.

The goal is to expand what’s now an “in-car infotainment system” into a tool that those who suffer from chronic health conditions can use to better their lives, Paul Mascarenas, chief technology officer and vice president of Ford Research and Innovation, said in a May 2011 Ford news release.

Ford is focusing its initial efforts on diabetes and asthma, because these two diseases affect large numbers of Americans. Almost 26 million U.S. adults and children have diabetes, a number that has grown by 3 million in just the past four years, according to the American Diabetes Association. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation reports an even larger group of asthma and allergy sufferers — 60 million.

To assist people with diabetes, Ford has been working with Medtronic, a manufacturer of glucose monitoring devices, to develop a system that will continuously measure a driver’s blood glucose levels and sound alerts if the levels get too low. Low blood sugar levels can cause side effects like lightheadedness or blurry vision, symptoms that can be particularly dangerous for people behind the wheel.

For asthma sufferers, Ford is working with SDI Health LLC to make a current smartphone app from available through the SYNC system. The app provides location-based information about pollen levels, which can help asthma sufferers take the necessary steps to avoid an attack.

Ford also wants drivers to be able to connect to WellDoc, a health management system, to receive real-time patient coaching, behavioral education and medication support.

Although these medical apps are in the research and prototype stages, Ford believes that some of them, such as the allergy alert, could be available relatively soon. Like other increasingly popular health care technologies (health care smart cards and online patient portals, for example), such in-car systems could help patients take control of their conditions — and avoid costly medical emergencies.

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