By Tom Still

CHICAGO – 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
conference Thursday and Friday 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.

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 to 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 expressed by
experts at Aurora Healthcare, 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

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 how 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 why 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 smart phone. 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.