Woman replaces $8,000 medical gear with iPhone

John C. Tanner
17 Sep 2009

I’ve been following the current US healthcare reform debate – or what passes for it – with a modicum of interest. I don’t pretend to understand how the current system works, or whether President Obama’s reform proposal would make things better or worse, but even his opponents would be hard-pressed to make a rational argument that the current US healthcare system is reasonably priced and affordable.

What does that have to do with telecoms technology? Potentially quite a bit.

The New York Times recently told the one about Kara Lynn, a woman whose mouth and throat muscles have been atrophied by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), thus removing her ability to speak. Two years ago, she bought a specially designed PC, approved by Medicare (the US’s current public health insurance option), with a specialized text-to-speech function.

However, that’s all it did, as Medicare requirements dictate (as do private insurers) that such a PC be limited to speech enablement. That means no email, no Web surfing or any of the other things people usually do on PCs. Supposedly, companies that make such PCs can enable them to do all of that for a fee (and after the insurance company agrees to cover the purchase). But as speech-enabling technology went, it was hardly mobile. All of which sounds somewhat absurd considering the PC’s $8,000 price tag.

So this year, Ms Lynn bought a device that does everything her expensive speech-generating computer does and a lot more: a $300 iPhone 3G running $150 text-to-speech software.

Medicare won’t cover it, even though it’s a far less expensive solution. Neither will private insurance companies. Why? Because the iPhone is not a dedicated medical device.

See what just happened there?

To be fair, one reason Ms Lynn’s speech-enabling PC costs so much is because it’s customized and highly specialized, and as we’ve seen even in the mobile sector, devices designed to do one thing well tend to do that one thing better than devices designed to do lots of other things (which is why your phone’s camera is still not as good as a high-end standalone digital camera, no matter how many megapixels it supports).

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