As a scientific advisor to CardioNet (NASDAQ: BEAT) (before the San Diego startup went public last year and moved to Pennsylvania), Eric Topol was in a position to see the coming wave of next-generation wireless technologies in healthcare. Among other things, Topol is the chief academic officer at Scripps Health in San Diego and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, a center funded by a $20 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that includes a focus on wireless healthcare.
Yet the prominent cardiologist recently told me he didn’t realize the potential of this emerging field of innovation until he attended a “Convergence Summit” that was organized last year by San Diego’s Wireless Life Sciences Alliance.
“It really was the most eye-opening experience,” Topol said, “because all of a sudden, I realized this is just not a cardiology play on heart rhythm or blood pressure. This is going everywhere.” At the same time, of course, Topol said smart phones were hitting their stride and it was becoming apparent that 3G wireless networks were capable of carrying video and enormous amounts of data.
Using wireless networks to monitor cardiovascular function was an obvious opening for technology innovation because heart failure is a critical healthcare issue, and because heart arrthymias are often transitory and difficult to detect in a hospital setting. But Topol said the scope of potential opportunities hit him as he listened to presentations on using wireless technologies to measure patients’ blood sugar, monitor sleep disorders, track respiratory function, and a host of other medical applications. He saw how it would be possible to share data with patients on their own cell phones, along with related information. Asthma and allergy sufferers, for example, could get a report on their respiratory function as well as get air quality reports, pollen counts, and weather data.
“It’s an amazing time in medicine where this technology of wireless sensors and wireless systems have been cropping up at quite an extraordinary rate across virtually all medical disciplines,” Topol said. At the same time, however, not many of these technological advances have gotten to the point of actually changing medicine, although Topol contends we are on the cusp of revolutionary change.
One reason is that the prime directive in healthcare today is to reduce costs. So any revolutionary technology must also come with revolutionary cost-effectiveness. “We know in this country that 26 percent of the people who are admitted to a hospital for heart failure are readmitted within one month,” Topol said. “So the cost to our health system is extraordinary.” As a result, Topol said, one of the fundamental tenets of using advanced wireless technologies in healthcare is to limit the number of people who have to be hospitalized.
Topol said all of these factors have come together in the formation of an institute that could combine San Diego’s prowess in wireless innovation with its expertise in the life sciences. The new West Wireless Health Institute is one of the first medical research organizations created to help develop innovative wireless technologies that advance healthcare. When the formation of the San Diego institute was announced March 30 (with a $45 million commitment from the Gary and Mary West Foundation), Topol was named as the institute’s chief medical officer.
For Topol, the institute was formed at an opportune moment to guide the direction of technology innovation and to assist the emerging wireless healthcare industry in a variety of ways. To accomplish both goals, Topol says the institute must address a number of challenges:
—Validation: Getting healthcare providers to adopt innovative wireless technologies requires not merely showing, for example, that a wireless device can accurately and continuously measure blood pressure, Topol said. It requires providing “overwhelming evidence” that using such technology enables patients to avoid strokes and heart attacks.
—Regulatory Approval: Under Topol’s leadership, the institute is amassing the expertise needed to conduct clinical trials that companies developing new wireless technologies need to win approval from the FDA and other regulators. In most cases, Topol said the companies would pay the institute to design and supervise the clinical trials. But it might also be possible to get NIH funding for “comparative effectiveness” studies, or to tap the institute itself for available funding.
—Cost Effectiveness: In addition to developing clinical studies, Topol said the institute plans to help gather evidence to show that healthcare providers can save money by adopting a particular technology.
—Health Policy: Topol said he also expects the institute to play a role in healthcare policy by helping to influence the medical community to adopt new wireless technologies.
“All those things we hope to accomplish via the West Institute,” Topol said. Qualcomm and Scripps Health are partners in the effort, but Topol said the $45 million donation by philanthropists Gary and Mary West is what made it all possible. Without the institute, Topol said, “Perhaps some of these things would happen anyway, but they may never [have been] done right… Over time, we should be able to click into all those things that we want to do.”
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