Intel has taken a somewhat shocking step away from its roots in the chip industry with its new Health Guide, a small tabletop gadget that Intel will build, sell, and manage through a suite of backend services.

Intel will develop pilot programs with several health care organizations, including Aetna, to assess how the Health Guide works in the home. The chip giant is also working with the American Heart Association to develop care plans for patients who have suffered heart attacks.

The Health Guide is being deployed now, after being approved by the FDA as a Class II device this past summer. It will be supplied by health care organizations. "This product is ready to go, end to end," said Louis Burns, general manager of the Digital Health division at Intel.

A small device about the size of a small-form-factor PC, the Health Guide PHS6000 is a small white box with a flip-up 10.4-inch LCD touchscreen, a webcam with privacy shield, and a touchscreen. Inside it is an undisclosed Intel processor and motherboard, together with Bluetooth and four USB ports.

The Health Guide requires a broadband connection, which it uses to connect to doctors and healthcare professionals, and to download content onto its small hard drive.

Intel designed the interface, which is both spare and functional, allowing users to access contact numbers for their doctors, schedule appointments, and upload new medical data via a small line of connected health devices, such as glucose meters and blood-oxygen sensors, that are already on the market from third-party suppliers. The webcam also allows the patient to videoconference with a nurse or healthcare provider, possibly its most important function.

The overarching goal, Burns and other Intel executives explained, is to provide a means for both patient and doctor to monitor a chronic condition, such as diabetes, without the need to constantly stop by a doctor's office for updates and new tests. Data uploaded by the device is automatically plugged into a mathematical model customized for the patient, where signs of an impending heart attack or other life-threatening condition can be analyzed and assigned treatment before a patient is forced to enter an emergency room.

This is actually Intel's second step into integrating IT into healthcare; in 2006 and 2007, Intel helped develop a tablet-based device called a mobile clinical assistant, which Motion Computing backed. Just last week, Panasonic launched a ruggedized Toughbook that conformed to the mobile clinical assistant standard.

How It Works

Intel sees the problem as something akin to the transition to mobile computing. Health Guide (the system behind the health-care gadget) includes a clinician-facing suite of services that allows access to a patient's health care data and vital information. It allows a nurse to schedule appointments and follow-up visits, and set alerts in case a patient's blood pressure, glucose levels, or other key indicators indicate a dangerous trend.

A healthcare professional can set up a series of questions to guide a patient through a self-diagnosis, with questions about his sleep habits or general state of health. Finally, the integrated web cam can also permit a personal consultation without the need for an on-site visit.

To solve that particular problem, Intel showed off the Health Guide in a portable format, running as an application on the T-Mobile G1, powered by Google's "Android" operating system, as well as a Sharp MID. In both cases, users would be limited by the hardware constraints of the mobile device, but could manually upload data and access some of the other features of the device, such as video content.

Portable health care also makes more sense in Europe, where even the elderly have mobile phones. Even simple things like an accelerometer in a mobile phone can provide clues about a person's stride, which can be slowed by an adverse reaction to medication. One of the best ways to judge the onset of a neurological condition is to examine how people type; Intel already has three year's worth of data to that effect by monitoring how people interact with PCs in Europe.