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Joseph Smith: Forging Healthcare's Wireless Way Forward

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, December 2, 2010

"If we can have all this [built-in diagnostic] information about our cars, why shouldn't we demand such about the health of our own bodies?"

In our annual HealthLeaders 20, we profile individuals who are changing healthcare for the better. Some are longtime industry fixtures; others would clearly be considered outsiders. Some are revered; others would not win many popularity contests. All of them are playing a crucial role in making the healthcare industry better. This is Joseph Smith's story.

The chief medical and science officer of the emerging $100 million West Wireless Health Institute in San Diego is pushing for a future in which today's chronic disease care—now provided during a 10-minute "snapshot" visit with the doctor—will seem like old school medicine.

Rather, explains Joseph Smith MD, PhD, illness will be tracked, perhaps even diagnosed and prevented, far more efficiently by wireless sensors in the home, on the skin or in the body, woven into clothing or built into appliances.

These sensors will keep track of vital signs and activity of disease-specific biomarkers. Or they may slide into toilets to measure drug metabolites or evidence of disease in human waste. Medicine cabinets might record, for both patients and providers far away, whether the patient took a prescribed drug. And mattresses might recognize a person's dangerous arrhythmia or sleep apnea during the night.

"What we're trying to do at this institute is identify those solutions that can work in this space and dramatically lower the cost of healthcare. And then we invest time, talent, and treasure in them to accelerate them." The institute is unique, he says, in that it's the only private non-profit group in the nation devoted to this effort: the improvement of healthcare through a reduction in its cost.

Two floors of the institute are devoted to testing such technologies, with engineers now being hired. But Smith also sees the institute's role as helping other companies and individuals produce intelligent wireless solutions. It will assist with proof of concept, commercialization, use, and acceptance.

For example, West Wireless has entered a partnership with Mexico's telecom tycoon Carlos Slim Helú, said by Forbes magazine to be the richest man in the world, to test a wireless system that provides prenatal monitoring to high-risk pregnant women in rural Mexico. Outreach workers, armed with diagnostic kits, visit these women and monitor them to detect when they may need special attention.

"It's not so good to put a pregnant, high-risk mom on an 80-mile bus ride to come in to see the doctor," Smith says.

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