Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Technology Advances In The Clinic and Cost Savings

Eric Topol is on a mission to get health care out of the mess it’s in.

Topol is known for his sounding the  alarm about Vioxx a drug which was very popular but carried with it significant risk.

He’d had a busy morning seeing patients and, by about noon, was claiming to have already saved the medical system thousands of dollars using his iPhone and a pocket-sized ultrasound machine. Then he pointed to the stethoscope in his pocket and said he hasn’t used it in three years. “I should just throw it out,” he said. “This is basically a worthless icon of medicine.”.

This profound statment spoken by a cardiologist articulates what most physician's may already have concluded.  Topol is perhaps the most prominent advocate in the U.S. of how digital technology can lead to less expensive health care, and he invited me to see the savings in action. As we lope toward the exam room, Topol, slightly hunched and repeatedly turning to deal with questions flying at him from his staff, seems a little rattled by the commotion and barrage of demands, but a calm sets in the moment he enters the exam room. He folds his arms across his chest as a young colleague updates him on the patient’s history. Topol introduces himself to the 85-year-old man, who has been tiring easily as of late, and then the doctor immediately pulls out his iPhone.

Topol, who since 2007 has aggressively promoted digitizing medicine, does not check his e-mail, Google a fact, or call a pharmacy. Rather he slips what looks like a protective case onto the phone. The outside of the case has two oval, metal pads that are electrodes, and Topol asks his patient to place his thumbs on them.

“He’s bradyacardic without any good reason to be bradyacardic,” Topol says to his colleague, Hashim Khan, watching as a graph of blips rollercoasters across his phone’s screen. He looks at me. “We save $100 for every one of these we do.”  
The add-on to the iPhone is a $199 version of a hospital-grade electrocardiogram machine that sells for much more. By getting the reading of the heart rhythm himself, Topol says, he’s saved the patient from going to a special station with a trained technician who will spend 15 minutes hooking up wires.

The old ways of ultrasound:

Moments later, Khan pulls out a Vscan, an ultrasound device made by GE Healthcare that resembles a large flip phone. With Topol looking on, Khan squirts gel on the man’s chest and then scans his heart’s chambers with a wand attached to the device. “His function looks actually not so bad,” says Topol, adding that most doctors charge $600 to perform an ultrasound using a $350,000 machine. But Topol bills nothing when it’s done as part of a routine physical exam like this. “There are 125 million ultrasound studies done in the United States each year,” says Topol, shaking his head. He says “probably 80 percent” of those could be done with the Vscan at no extra charge.

Topol promotes the use of wireless technology for diagnostics. The savings will be enormous, not just in the capital required for instruments, but the efficiency and utilization of small handheld devices in the clinic, devices that can be carried in the doctor's pocket (or bag). Included in his 'deck of cards' are things like  another of Topol’s projects, a collaboration with Caltech, aims to put a wireless sensor into an artery. The sensor would be about a third of the size of a grain of sand, and will stay put and potentially detect an imminent heart attack. If it works better, it could prevent heart attacks—an outcome that Topol says doesn’t require a cost-effectiveness study, ZioPatch, a Band-Aid sized heart monitor that people wear for up to two weeks, can more readily detect heart arrhythmias than the clunky Holter monitor used for 50 years. Consider sleep labs. Topol says smartphone add-ons that measure oxygen use and pulses can diagnose sleep apnea without requiring someone to spend a night in a sleep lab, which costs thousands of dollars. “Talk about putting them out of business,” says Topol. “We can do a screening test which is basically free through a smart phone.”
Another of Topol’s projects, a collaboration with Caltech, aims to put a wireless sensor into an artery. The sensor would be about a third of the size of a grain of sand, and will stay put and potentially detect an imminent heart attack.

It is a 'brave new world" and these devices are only the beginning. Continuing miniaturization of processors, and new developments in materials,nanotechnology, chemistry and physics will drive innovation.  

These events will radicalize medical education.

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