hough pacemakers have been around for nearly five decades, they were actually one of the first implanted medical devices capable of transmitting data from its users’ homes. This was accomplished via analog telephone lines and was initially only able to send rudimentary information, such as battery status. Then, just over ten years ago, second generation pacemakers were introduced that had the ability to relay more information, including historical data and device diagnostic information. A wand would have to be passed over the pacemaker device to take and transmit readings.

Even still, sending data from these more advanced pacemakers could be inconvenient. For example, these second-gen devices were limited to monitoring via an analog telephone line within continental North America only.

Although there have been significant medical technology advancements in the last decade, a novel solution to the challenge of pacemaker remote monitoring is an inherently non-medical device: the smartphone. It’s strange to think our smartphones, the tool we use for almost all aspects of our lives, were non-existent just ten years ago; now they’re almost ubiquitous. In 2015, comScore estimated more than 62 percent of Canadian phone owners, 55 years and older, owned a smartphone and more than 1.5-million Canadians used mobile devices exclusively to access the internet.

This knowledge, coupled with the limitations of previous pacemaker monitoring, inspired Medtronic, the world’s largest standalone medical technology company, to utilize smartphones as a way to remotely monitor their patients’ pacemakers. This innovative pairing of commercial and cardiac medical technology optimizes healthcare in a number of different ways. Applications like the MyCareLink SmartTM Monitor for Medtronic implantable pacemakers, for example, allows patients to use their own Apple or Android smartphone with the MyCareLink Smart app to transmit data to their physician or other caregiver over the internet or cellular network. This exchange not only eliminates the need for clunky analog phone lines, but because the system uses Wi-Fi or cellular data to transmit, it’s both familiar to most people and also allows their health care professional to remotely monitor their pacemakers from almost anywhere around the globe in the span of a few short minutes. 

Then there’s the peace of mind this technology offers family members. With an app-based system such as this one, monitoring can be set up in such a way both family members and caregivers can be notified if a transmission is scheduled and if it has already taken place.

Finally, and perhaps the most practical application of this technology, is the convenience of remote monitoring. Given pacemaker patients are generally older, the arduous task of returning to the hospital for manual device check-ups can be a huge undertaking. Allowing health care professionals to remotely monitor patients’ implanted pacemakers substantially increases their quality of life.

Strangely, one of the beneficiaries of this technology is a man who played an important role in the pacemaker’s initial development. Earl Bakken, aged 92, is not only one of the founders of Medtronic, but also developed the first wearable, battery-operated pacemaker back in 1957. Now, from his home in Hawaii, Bakken uses his smartphone to send his pacemaker transmissions without leaving his chair, combining the technology he helped create with the smartphones we use everyday.