Make Your PDA a Health Partner

Manage disease, get fit, or just be ready in case of emergency

Becky Ellgen has been living with diabetes for 20 years, but she still finds managing the disease to be a hassle. In addition to juggling the frequent blood tests and insulin injections, she has to constantly count and adjust the carbohydrates in her diet. Recently, she discovered a new ally: FreeStyle Tracker, a program that lets her manage her disease with the Handspring Visor handheld she uses to keep track of her business meetings and store her address book. Now, her handheld--with the help of an attachment--also measures her blood glucose, tells her when to take her insulin, and keeps a running tab of her carbohydrate intake. "There's even a food database that tells you, say, how many carbs are in a medium-sized apple," says Ellgen, 23, a software marketing representative in Denver. "It's awesome."

Indeed, when it comes to managing your health, a handheld computer can be as vital a partner as your doctor--and not just for coping with serious medical conditions. Hundreds of software tools can transform these devices into everything from a heart monitor to a personal workout trainer. Your handheld can beep you three times a day to remind you to take your cholesterol pill and tell you how many laps you have to swim to burn off that double-cheeseburger lunch. Expecting a baby? Your pocket computer can coach you through labor. Most consumer health applications are designed for devices with the Palm operating system, but the up-and-coming Pocket PC is rapidly catching up as a valuable health-management tool.

Even the Food & Drug Administration is singing the praises of the handheld PC. In June, it cleared the FreeStyle Tracker for diabetes management. The tool includes a blood-test module that attaches to the Visor. The user slides a test strip with a drop of blood on it right into the top of the PC, which reads and records the results. The FDA also approved a similar tool from Roche Diagnostics called Accu-Chek Advantage Module, available in late October.

For patients with heart disease who want to monitor their health on the road, the FDA approved ActiveECG turns a Palm handheld PC into a portable cardiac monitor. ActiveECG comes with wires that stick to your chest, much like the systems cardiologists use, to record your heart rhythm. Any Palm user with wireless e-mail can zap the results directly to a doctor's pocket computer. "Then the doctor can say, `It's probably something you ate, don't worry,' or `Drop everything, and go to the hospital,"' says Jeffrey Siegel, founder of Active, the Castine (Me.) company that developed the product.

For everyday health management, a handheld is equally powerful. One of the best applications for calorie counters is Diet & Exercise Assistant, for both Palm and Pocket PC. After you enter your height, weight, and weight-loss goal, the program calculates how many calories you take in and how many you burn, based on your diet and workout routine, which you record daily in easy-to-use templates. The software includes a food database. So if you indulge in a candy bar at lunch, you can record the amount of calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fat you ate by tapping through a menu of dozens of brand names from Almond Joy to Twix. If your favorite food isn't in the database, you can add it, or use CalorieKing Mobile Edition for Palm and Pocket PC to fill in the holes. Its list of 10,000 foods is remarkably detailed. Search "avocado," and it calls up nine results, including "roast beef and avocado sandwich" and "raw, California avocado."

For those who obsess less about dieting and more about building muscle tone, Workout Tracker for Palm is a great companion in the gym. Use it to record how many pounds you lift and the number of sets and repetitions you do. It'll even calculate your body-fat percentage, help you set goals, and track your progress. An "auto-fill" feature automatically enters data based on your past workouts, so you don't have to spend too much time fiddling with your computer's stylus between bench presses.

Your Palm also makes it easy to cart around important medical information. Profile-MD stores your doctor's contact information, details of your medical plan, as well as your entire medical history, including diagnoses, surgeries, and family history of disease. You can list the medications you're on and what you're allergic to--details that are often difficult to recall, especially during medical emergencies. You can download Profile-MD for free off the Web from several sites, including

If you take a lot of medications, you may need a more comprehensive medical manager. On-Time-Rx sets your handheld PC's alarm to beep when it's time to take your medicine and records which doses you took and which you forgot. It also includes refill reminders. For patients such as Bernie Laramie, a Hollywood TV producer, On-Time-Rx has been a lifesaver. "I have high cholesterol, and I was always forgetting to take all three doses of my medicine each day," he says. His Palm now beeps him to take the drug, as well as his vitamins. And if he schedules a blood donation, On-Time-Rx will remind him several days before to stop taking his regular dose of aspirin--a no-no prior to a blood donation.

A handheld device can be a great pregnancy coach. Pregnancy Assistant for Palm tracks what week you're in and stores contact information for your obstetrician and hospital. But it really kicks into gear when baby prepares to make its entrance. The expectant mother--or nervous dad--can record contractions by tapping a button when the contraction starts and then another when it ends. The handheld tracks the frequency and length of each contraction, then sounds an alarm when it's time to call the doctor.

Once you have your own health in order, you can make use of your handheld to take care of your four-legged friends, too. With a program called PetVet for Palm, you can store your pet's medical history as well as contact information for your vet, local boarders, and pet stores. You can list Rover's favorite treats and keep track of which stores sell them at the lowest prices. It's another example of how having the power to monitor your health in the palm of your hand can benefit every member of the family.

By Arlene Weintraub

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