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Joseph Smith: Forging Healthcare's Wireless Way Forward

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, December 2, 2010

Smith also sees his role as that of an advocate for more effective action by the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, so advanced wireless devices can get through marketing and licensing approvals, whether they are classified as communication devices like phones, or medical ones like pacemakers.

"We need much more clarity than we now have in our regulatory processes," he says. "There are venture capitalists just sitting on the sidelines, not investing in this space because they're concerned about what aspect of a particular device or integrated solution is going to be regulated by which agency and to what standard it will be held."

He doesn't seem afraid to challenge prevailing practices.

He was first in line before a recent House Committee on Veterans Affairs, boldly suggesting that the VA healthcare system could do better than spend $1.8 billion on two new hospitals. Rather, since three million of the nation's veterans live in rural areas, the system should invest wireless technologies and expand broadband that can bring healthcare to these vets.

What a great bang for the buck, he says, because rural vets have a greater burden of chronic disease.

Smith started out as a student of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, got a PhD in medical engineering and medical physics and an MD from Harvard Medical School.

His particular field is in electrophysiology, which he says makes him "the geekiest, nerdiest" type of physician. His early focus was on heart rhythm abnormalities that cause sudden death, a pursuit that gave rise to a new company and an FDA-approved screening device.

"That early experience taught me the value starting with a clinical problem, taking it back to the research labs for R&D, and then bringing it back to the bedside for proving."

That geekiness shows when he talks about the creative solutions to come. There could be pills that carry sensors that, once in the stomach, signal when and whether they've been taken and correctly absorbed.

Perhaps such devices could signal to a physician or a loved one—even far away—that everything is okay—mom has not fallen, and she awoke and got out of bed and took her meds as usual—as well as when it might not be.

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