Profit in Health Care

by Phil Hughes

I am on the newsletter list—and it isn't because he looks like me. It actually has some useful information. But, like most newsletters, it has ads.

Sometimes the ads are useful as well. Today's ad was for a non-medical device that will lower blood pressure. I have friends with high blood pressure so I decided it was worth a look. It was as it convinced me that a Linux geek needs to build an Open Source product for those that don't have expensive medical insurance that will pay for overpriced gadgets.

The product is a little box with a few buttons, a small LCD, an embedded processor, a respiration sensor and a set of headphones. Oh, and "patented technology". What the unit does is teaches you to slow down your breathing which should lower your blood pressure. Well, those of us that grew up in the 1960s had a similar method called "chilling out". Less stress and your blood pressure goes down.

This particular box seems to be able to learn about what it did with you last time (gee, it has some flash) and uses two tones to program you—one to tell you to breath in, the other to tell you to breath out. Thinking about the hardware and the technology involved, it it was mass produced in China I feel like it would cost less than $20. It isn't (well, I don't know where it is made but I expect the market is relatively small right now) so I figured $50.

Then I remembered the "patented technology". I have no idea what that is and didn't bother looking it up but figured I needed to double the price to cover it. Well, I was way off. It isn't $20, $50 or even $100. It costs $300. That price alone will likely raise your blood pressure.

At first I started thinking about how you would do something like this with a PDA such as a Palm Z22. The problem is how you would input the breathing sensor. But, a Z22 retails for $100 so it already sounded too expensive if that is all you were going to do with it. Why not just a program that you could run on your desktop or laptop? Being "a real computer" you could probably offer fancier things such as background music.

Could someone profit from this idea implemented as Open Source software? I don't see why not. Certainly not at the same profit per unit but at $30 instead of $300 you could probably sell a lot more. Here is what I think would make sense.

Find or make a breathing sensor. As it probably won't plug into your computer— think USB, serial or parallel port—some additional hardware is needed. Build it. Write the software to talk to the unit. Sell it at a fair price to reflect the cost of the hardware. Make the software Open Source.

What about getting health insurance companies to pay for them? I don't think it is worth it. The $300 product does imply it is FDA approved but I am reasonably sure it just means the FDA doesn't care. It isn't something you ingest or even connect to your body. But, actually getting insurance companies to pay for something is likely to cost a lot more than it is worth. Let someone else do that—you just sell them the breathing sensors with the computer interface and give them the software.

Ok, I feel better. Writing this seems to have lowered my blood pressure.

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