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Chipmaker Intel and manufacturing giant General Electric are pooling their efforts to computerize home-based healthcare.

GE has two divisions - GE Healthcare and GE Healthcare Financing - dedicated to the healthcare sector. Together they account for $18bn (£12.2bn) in sales, according to Jeff Immelt, GE's chairman and chief executive officer.

GE Healthcare provides a wide range of sophisticated (and usually computerized) medical equipment ranging from lab-testing equipment to diagnostic tools such as X-ray and CT scanners. GE Healthcare Financing supplies the financing that keeps that equipment moving into labs, doctors' offices, clinics, and hospitals.

As a home-appliance maker and a player in the healthcare field, GE's desire to be in the home healthcare-appliance business makes perfect sense. One device it now sells is called Quiet Care, a patient-monitoring system that is typically used in US assisted-living facilities to detect changes in residents that might indicate a medical emergency is underway.

According to Intel president and CEO Paul Otellini, who made the Thursday announcement with Immelt in New York, Intel started doing research and development on devices for the healthcare sector some nine years ago.

One result of that research has been an Intel-marketed device called Health Guide, a baby computer that lets doctors and nurses monitor patients remotely from their offices, thereby allowing people with chronic conditions to stay home and still get nearly instant medical attention if they need it. (You can read all about the Health Guide here (PDF).

Citing statistics from Datamonitor, Intel and GE say that the market for telemedicine and home health-monitoring is $3bn (£2bn) today in North America and Europe combined, but is expected to grow to $7.7bn (£5.2bn) by 2012.

But the two companies are chasing much bigger opportunities than that, seeing as how telemedicine is still largely just nurses phoning patients to check up on them. Just as automatic teller machines both cut down on the need for bank workers and make money more accessible, automated medical devices are aimed at similarly helping transform the way medicine is practiced.

Health IT doesn't just mean automating back-end systems that keep medical records or process insurance claims, but also providing front-end devices that interface with patients and help doctors and nurses care for more remote patients - and do a better job at it, as well.

Immelt said that more than 80 per cent of the money spent on healthcare in established economies is related to chronic diseases that affect about 50 per cent of the population. He suggests that the way we administer healthcare has to change, much as the way business processes have had to change as companies have used IT to force efficiency and productivity gains over the past 50 years.

Healthcare can't escape the Internet, it seems.

"Much of healthcare has to take care outside of the hospital and into the home," Immelt declared.

Louis Burns, general manager of Intel's Digital Health Group, provided some stats to explain why. There are currently around 600 million people globally in the developed economies who are over the age of 60. By 2025 that will rise to 1.2 billion and by 2050 it will increase to 2 billion.

With medicine extending lifespans, those billions will need a lot of monitoring.

"We need to enable our elders to age in place, with the right technology, and with dignity," Burns said - meaning in their own homes. Not just because this will be more convenient and preferable, but also because automation and communication will allow better and cheaper care to be given.

To that end, GE and Intel are putting up $250m (£170m) of their own cash over the next five years to do R&D collaboratively on home healthcare devices. Also, GE will sell Intel's Health Guide appliance through its US distribution channel.

Intel has early deployments of the Health Guide in Scotland right now, and is readying a rollout in both the United Kingdom and in the Netherlands. GE is also leading a consortium in Hungary that has ponied up $5m (£3.4m) for a three-year research effort to see how Quiet Care and other technologies can be deployed to make medical care in assisted living centers better and safer. Intel has a similar research project underway in Ireland, and a research facility in Oregon, as well.

Maybe the United States will wake up to universal healthcare if it has an internet front-end? Maybe that will make it affordable?

We can only hope. ®

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