Blog post: Smart inhalers - your questions answered

Dr Andy Whittamore looks at the facts about smart inhalers

09 February 2017

Dr Andy Whittamore from Asthma + Lung UK

My first mobile phone just about fitted in my pocket and made poor quality calls.

It’s amazing how far technology has come on. Now our phones tell us where we are and what’s in our vicinity, provide us with music and films for our entertainment, and even allow us to check our bank balance while we sit on the bus.

We’re also starting to interact more with our phones for our health. It may be as simple as doing a google search to identify a rash, or using an app to measure how many steps we take. This technology will become more mainstream as we get used to it.

The NHS is gradually improving its digital offerings by allowing people to access their health records, book appointments and order medication online. This is all useful and fits with the digital lives that many of us now rely on.

Smart inhalers are another such offering. They have been used in research for years with fairly impressive results. Just as smart phones are now commonplace, so too could smart inhalers be one day.

As a GP, I am excited about the potential of new technologies to help me support more people with asthma when they need it most. Smart inhalers are one way of achieving this, but as our new report Smart asthma shows, we need to be smart about how we introduce them into the NHS.

What is a smart inhaler and how does it work?

Smart inhalers detect inhaler use and transmit that data. Smart inhalers contain sensors that attach to existing inhalers and record when your medication is taken. They are Bluetooth-enabled, so can be paired wirelessly with a smart device like a phone or tablet or with a computer to allow data to be transferred from the smart inhaler automatically.

In the future, an app on your smart phone could receive and interpret the data from your smart inhaler and send you health advice and reminders.

Your data could also be shared with your GP, asthma nurse or hospital team to help tailor care to your needs. Knowing when and where your symptoms flare up may help identify personal triggers and allow a more individually tailored self-management plan.

Will smart inhalers work with all types of medication?

The devices developed so far appear to work with many types of inhaler. We know that people with asthma may have to switch between different inhalers, so we think that it’s important as these are introduced that people with asthma can easily switch between medications seamlessly while continuing to use a smart inhaler.

Will smart inhalers work with all types of smart phones?

The devices link to smartphones via Bluetooth. Each manufacturer tends to have accompanying smartphone apps, where you can look at your data or change reminder settings, and these may not be available for every type of smartphone. The smart inhaler apps that have emerged so far appear to work with both iPhone and Android.

Where can I get a smart inhaler?

All this sounds wonderful, but we are not there yet. Smart inhalers are not available for people to buy at present, and are not yet widely available within the NHS.

We need to make sure the technology will work and will be compatible with NHS computer systems; we need to ensure the systems keep you as safe as possible as well as keeping your data secure.

We believe there needs to be further testing among people with asthma before wider roll-out to ensure that they work well for people with asthma and clinicians. 

When will smart inhalers be available?

The honest answer is we don’t know. Currently, there is no way of knowing when smart inhalers will be widely available. The process for approving and providing new digital health technologies in the UK has not been fully established yet. Depending on government and NHS policy, these could be set up quickly or take several years.

Asthma + Lung UK will continue to work with partners to solve the remaining challenges and try to speed up the adoption of smart inhalers so that people can benefit from them as soon as possible.

Read more about the opportunities and potential pitfalls in bringing smart inhalers into the NHS in our blog: A real life approach to asthma 

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