San Diego’s Eric Topol Outlines a Coming Wave of Innovation in Wireless Health

10/29/09Follow @bvbigelow

Here at Xconomy, our focus on technology innovation is usually riveted on the interface where startups get built around new inventions and discoveries. But in a presentation last night at TEDMED, Eric Topol highlighted an innovative new medical device from an industrial giant that was unveiled last week at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco by GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt.

A prominent cardiologist, Topol is director of the San Diego-based Scripps Translational Science Institute, chief medical officer of the West Wireless Health Institute in La Jolla, and chief academic officer at San Diego’s Scripps Health.

Eric Topol

Eric Topol

When he took the TEDMED stage at San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado, Topol took out a stethoscope and dropped it into a trash can—saying GE’s Immelt introduced a handheld ultrasound device on Oct. 20 that will make the stethoscope obsolete. It resembles a slightly oversized clamshell smart phone, with a small screen that can display ultrasound images of the heart and how well it is pumping.

GE Vscan

GE Vscan

Noting that the stethoscope was invented in 1816, Topol said, “In 2016, doctors will not be walking around with stethoscopes around their necks.”

For Topol, the handheld ultrasound is just one example of a wave of innovation that is expected to render obsolete many standard medical tools and instruments.

Topol told the audience that nowadays “You check your e-mail, you check the Web if you’re bored. In the future, you can check your vital signs—and I mean all your vital signs.” An iPhone display, projected on the big screen behind him, showed the electronic signature of a heartbeat, blood pressure, temperature, and oximetry (oxygen saturation of the blood). “What if on your phone you had every minute of your sleep recorded?” Topol asked. “What about counting every calorie?”

By combining advances in sensors, wireless communications, and information technologies, Topol said it is becoming easier to develop ways of diagnosing ailments while patients are at home or work, and to continuously monitor people with chronic diseases. The innovations he discussed include:

—A San Francisco-based venture, iRhythm, has developed a card-size ECG (electrocardiogram) sensor that a patient can wear on belt clip, or on a lanyard around their neck, for up to 30 days. The device continuously measures the electrical activity of the heart. While the company is developing wireless capabilities, Topol said after 30 days that patients can drop the device into a pre-addressed envelope and mail, enabling doctors to retrieve and review the data.

—A “smart bandaid” like one under development at Corventis, a venture-backed medical device company based in San Jose, can be stuck on a patient’s chest to automatically collect a range of physiological information. In the first clinical trial to be done through San Diego’s new West Wireless Institute, Topol said Corventis is using its technology in a 600 patient sample to show if such data collected 24/7 can help doctors make better and more accurate diagnoses.

—Topol also described technology under development that could enable patients to have their own brain scan, by wearing a wireless cap that transmits data of electrical activity produced by neurons in the brain to a data storage device that doubles as “a really nice alarm clock.” Topol displayed data showing his own sleep patterns in a chart that also quantified the different stages of brain activity during sleep, including the deep sleep stage that is most beneficial. “Who would ever have thought that you could have your own EEG? [electroencephalography]” Topol asked.

With such innovations in wireless medical devices, Topol said it should be possible make health care more available and affordable by keeping people out of the hospital. “The hospital bed is far more expensive that the Presidential Suite at this hotel,” Topol said.

With the innovations that have been made over the past 20 years in cellular technology, Topol said, “Mobile phones have made a bigger difference in the lives of more people in more countries than any other technology.” Now he anticipates a similar reign of innovation in wireless health, saying the field represents one of those rare events beyond the realm of normal expectations—“the black swan of medicine.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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