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Marrying an asthma inhaler to a wireless monitor and a smartphone app

Propeller Health’s device attaches to an inhaler and connects wirelessly to a smartphone, helping users and doctors understand what the use of rescue medicine says about asthma triggers. Credit: PROPELLER HEALTH, LLC

What do you get by marrying an asthma inhaler to a wireless monitor and a smartphone app? Plenty, says David Van Sickle, a medical anthropologist who specializes in respiratory disease.

In 2011, Van Sickle created a spinoff called Propeller Health while he was working on respiratory disease prevention at UW Health in Madison.

Van Sickle arrived at UW–Madison in 2006 with a grant to pursue what he calls “high-risk, high-reward technologies to better understand how we could monitor and intervene to help people and communities better manage the burden of asthma and chronic , or emphysema.”

In the United States, he adds, the direct and indirect costs of asthma are estimated at $56 billion.

Both asthma and COPD “are characterized by a persistent gap in what we should be able to achieve and what we have accomplished,” Van Sickle says. “We have a lot of effective therapies that are not being used, either at all, or to best effect.”

Propeller Health makes an add-on device for inhalers that communicates with a smartphone that records the use of routine preventative medicines and “rescue” medications intended to open constricted airways. This gives the patient useful information on their smartphone or website about whether routine meds are being taken as scheduled, and it shows them patterns that trigger the need for rescue medicines.

By forecasting conditions that are likely to exacerbate asthma, the Propeller device can help patients take regular meds that reduce symptoms. Credit: PROPELLER HEALTH, LLC

“Over time, we learn when and where you need your rescue inhaler, and so we’re able to teach people something they may not understand: ‘When you are wheezing, it’s often high humidity and you are at work.’ With this information, you can take steps to avoid those exposures.”

To date, Propeller has raised $45.5 million in investment funding. It has 65 full-time employees, including about 40 in Madison and the rest in San Francisco. About one-quarter of the employees are UW–Madison alumni, largely from the Department of Computer Sciences and the Wisconsin School of Business. About 10,000 people are using the system in the United States, says Van Sickle, and the company is expanding into Canada and Europe.

Generally, the Propeller Health system is purchased by health plans or provider systems, which make it available to patients, often through a primary…

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