Partners’ Center for Connected Health to Launch Disease-Monitoring System, Mulls Commercial Spinoff

A group within Boston’s largest health system is launching a Web-based service so employers can help their workers keep their high blood pressure in check. The service developed by the Center for Connected Health, which is part of Partners HealthCare, could help reduce thousands of fatal strokes and heart attacks in the U.S. caused by high blood pressure every year.

The service, called SmartBeat, could have an advantage over other disease-management options. Its technology doesn’t allow people to fudge their blood pressure inputs and gives them automatic feedback about their health status, Joseph Kvedar, director of the Center for Connected Health, says. The technology appears so promising, in fact, that Kvedar says his group is weighing whether to spin off SmartBeat as an independent company or to license it to another firm to expand use of the system nationwide.

For now, Hopkinton, MA-based EMC (NYSE:EMC) has signed up to pay for SmartBeat, aiming to lower its overall health-care tab by providing a tool to help keep workers healthy. (The data storage company and 400 of its employees participated in a study of the system in 2007.) Partners HealthCare also plans to implement the system for its own employees this year, Kvedar says.

To hear Kvedar describe it, SmartBeat sounds uncomplicated. People use blood pressure cuffs linked to modems to upload their readings to a server. Users can view changes in their blood pressure online, and the system provides automated messages to them with tips on how to lower their blood pressure or with encouragement for reducing their blood pressure. He says other systems rely on users to self-report their blood pressure, which enables some to get creative about their actual readings, and providing poor accuracy overall.

“The idea of blood pressure self-management is a start to a multi-faceted product suite,” Kvedar says. “The vision is to extend it to diabetes, to activity-management and weight [control], as well as to some mental health conditions down the road.”

It makes sense for SmartBeat to start with high blood pressure. About a third of American adults have high blood pressure, which ups the risk of heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To make matters worse, people with high blood pressure typically make frequent visits to doctors and hospitals. The annual cost to keep them healthy is tens of billions of dollars.

The center now faces the tough decision of whether to keep SmartBeat a nonprofit service or turn it into a for-profit business. It’s fine to provide the service to EMC and other large employers in Massachusetts, Kvedar says, because his center is dedicated to providing care to patients within the Partners network. But SmartBeat could offer the same service for a fee to companies in other parts of the country, which would fall outside the center’s non-profit mission. He noted that the center, for instance, is in talks about providing SmartBeat to food company Kellogg, headquartered in Battle Creek, MI.

There’s a viable national market for SmartBeat. The U.S. disease-management business, which was worth about $1 billion in 2005, is expected to bring in more than $2 billion this year, according to forecasts by market research firm Frost & Sullivan.

Even with healthy market prospects, it can be tricky to turn nonprofit hospital services into for-profit ventures. For example, I covered the spinout of retinal imaging firm Veraxa Health from Boston research hospital Joslin Diabetes Center a few years ago. But the company reverted to its former status as a nonprofit group within Joslin less than a year after its commercial launch. Veraxa couldn’t drum up enough interest from investors to support the operation until it could reach profitability. (Here’s a story I wrote about Veraxa for Mass High Tech.)

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