From Future Promise to Full Fruition

The USC Center for Body Computing advances digital health.

Imagine a tiny device — one that can be injected under the skin in seconds — that records every beat, pause and fibrillation of the heart for up to three years.

Or picture a wireless sensor that tracks the pressure on the pulmonary artery, delivers crucial information to a cardiologist and alerts the patient if she needs to adjust a medication.

These incredible advances were among the many digital innovations among the digital health innovations demonstrated at the 8th annual Body Computing Conference at USC.

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Digital health is changing the way that doctors and patients access medical information. It is giving patients new and powerful tools for self-management of chronic medical problems and providing both patients and their doctors with time-saving and cost-saving tools.

Take, for example, a smart phone case that records a patient’s electrocardiogram which was demonstrated at the conference. Holding a smart phone just a few inches from her chest, one of the panelists demonstrated how simple it is take an ECG that can be shared with a cardiologist who can make a determination whether or not that person needs to make a trip to the hospital.

Several experts from the world of sports also attended this conference to share how professional sports teams and trainers collect biometric information using a device called the Zephyr Physiological Status Monitoring System. The device takes readings of signs such as heart rate, breathing rate, accelerometry, skin temperature, G-force, jump height and peak acceleration for individuals or for entire teams and helps coaches and trainers make decisions about training and planning for games.

A lot has changed since Leslie A. Saxon, MD, Keck Medicine of USC cardiologist, organized the first conference on digital health eight years ago. Saxon hoped to bring together physicians, engineers, designers, medical device makers and investors who were interested in the promise of digital health.

At that time, however, digital health was more theoretical than real. Discussing programs for phones that would allow physicians to pull up patient files or read X-rays was a little too futuristic for some of the attendees.

“In several instances, people left in a huff, or laughed off the notion of digital technology changing health care,” recalls Saxon. “Many of the physician-attendees said the change wouldn’t happen ‘for two decades.’”

In spite of some of the less than encouraging feedback that she received after the first conference, Saxon was determined she was on the right path and established the USC Center for Body Computing (CBC), a multidisciplinary digital health innovation incubator, shortly after that first gathering.

Less than a decade later, many digital health products have hit the market, including several that were developed at the CBC, and several more are in the pipeline. Dana Meade, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers who has attended all eight CBC conferences, said, “Digital health has become the fastest growing category of venture capital funding.”

As the industry grows, however, those involved are beginning to realize the obstacles that lie ahead. Todd Richmond, PhD, director of advanced prototypes at the USC Institute of Creative Technologies, warned that there is a breaking point for humans in terms of information overload. “We know we can create great technology, but we have to make it with the users in mind.”

Likewise, several companies are beginning to realize that doctors need better information, not just more of it. For example, a conference participant who developed an electrocardiogram attached to cell phone case is adding an app that runs an algorithm, so it can detect patterns consistent with atrial fibrillation, alert the user and send the electrocardiogram to a cardiologist.

Digital health is no longer a futuristic concept, and a number of conference attendees noted that Saxon and the CBC have played a major role in development of the industry.

“Kudos to Leslie for starting this conference,” said Wainwright Fishburn, a partner at Palo Alto-based law firm, Cooley LLP. “The digital health community is very interconnected and this conference has been a big part of it.”

By Hope Hamashige