As health care evolves, so does need for smarter, cost-effective tools

Some of the trends in American health care are obvious: Managing costs in the age of Obamacare, patients using online information to take charge of their own health and wellness, and finding ways to deliver care in settings other than hospitals and clinics.

Those trends become specific, sometimes knotty, challenges for people engaged in building the tools needed to effectively, efficiently and safely deliver health care.

Envisioning, designing and manufacturing medical devices – which range from robots to sensors, and from surgical instruments to software that allows devices to communicate with one another – was the topic of a recent conference in Chicago. 

The event confirmed that device innovation in Wisconsin can compete with the nation’s best, especially when it’s driven by solving problems in patient care. 

Attendees and speakers from organizations such as Baxter Healthcare, Phillips Healthcare, Advamed, Cook Medical and Cardinal Health talked about best practices and trends in medical devices, most of which are regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration and which compete for “shelf space” in the world of health care delivery.

Still

Conversations ranged from development of a five-foot tall “remote doctor,” which is a robot that roams hospital halls and interacts with patients, to cybersecurity risks posed by wireless medical devices, to regulation of prescription-only mobile applications. 

Behind the often-technical talk was a sense that medical device innovators can’t just invent things because they make cool operating room toys. They must start with a feel for what patients and providers need – and assess whether the cost of innovation comes with benefits that match or exceed those costs. 

So, what’s the “wish list” for solving patient and provider problems? My remarks at the conference included ideas voiced by experts at Aurora Health Care, Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin and the Marshfield Clinic. A few examples:

  • Technology that provides real-time, remote access to patient diagnostic test information in a manner compliant with federal privacy laws.
  • Remote sensing and monitoring devices that measure patient vitals and simple chemistries, such as glucose levels, and transmit them into the medical record electronically.
  • Population health management and clinical decision support systems.
  • Data mining tools and easy to use software to query searchable databases such as electronic health records.
  • More efficient means for hospitals to identify patients eligible for therapeutic or medical device clinical trials.
  • Devices that give patients greater feedback during rehabilitation to encourage better compliance and quicker recovery.
  • Technology that provides information on a patient’s compliance with medication, a concept known as “pharmaco-vigilance.”
  • Technology to improve “natural language processing,” a relatively new tool that would help medical professionals better prescribe drugs and therapies by pulling discrete data from electronic health records.

The medical device industry in Wisconsin includes companies that produce analytical laboratory instruments, electro-medical equipment, surgical instruments and diagnostic equipment. It also includes a burgeoning health information technology sector, anchored by Epic Systems in Verona, which is figuring out how to make medical devices “talk” among themselves. That’s one way the “Internet of Things” is changing medicine. The state also has a strong medical research cluster and health delivery systems that understand how to test and adopt innovation.

An aging population, the need to better deliver health care in rural settings and the push to better manage medical costs are among the reasons the industry is looking for the right tools. Those devices can help better diagnose patients, avoid medical mistakes, speed recovery and hold the line on costs over time.

Patient and provider acceptance is necessary, however, and that can be difficult in a world in which many people expect a medical device or software system to work as seamlessly as a smartphone. Usability can be complicated by security measures and federal regulations, for example.

It’s not all about producing gee-whiz technology. It’s about listening to patients and medical professionals who understand the problems. More so than most states, Wisconsin has the right resources to do both.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

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