San Diego Business Journal

An urgent market need to drive down the bloated cost of health care delivery worldwide has spawned a new cooperative spirit among telecommunications, technology and investment companies wanting to develop wireless technology as a way to make health care less expensive and more efficient.

And while the development of wireless devices for the expense-laden health care industry is in its early stages, there’s a full court sprint in San Diego to speed its progress along.

“We have all the elements to pull that together, with biotech, life sciences, wireless and medicine,” said Rory Moore, chief executive officer of CommNexus San Diego, a nonprofit that showcases emerging local communications technologies to national and international markets.

“They represent the food chain,” he says, of developing wireless health care technology.

But it isn’t going to happen overnight. Some products will need Food and Drug Administration approval, while others won’t and could reach store shelves relatively quickly. Moore figures it could take a decade for wireless technology to permeate health care. But he also predicts a “tipping point,” when it will reach enough market saturation to fuel rapid acceleration of wireless devices and systems in the industry globally.

Software Is the Workhorse

Whatever innovative wireless products are produced for the health care industry, says Bob Slapin, they will all be rooted in software development.

“What’s going to make it work is the software that controls the data, security and user interface,” said Slapin, executive director of the San Diego Software Industry Council.

Slapin says there’s a “fallacy” mentality in the industry that wireless devices — hardware — are the key to meeting the health care market’s efficiency needs. Whether it is wireless access to electronic medical records or mobile heart monitoring devices, “the hardware is not the issue,” he says, noting that a telephone’s software, for example, is what makes it work. “The hardware issues, I think, have been addressed.”

While demand for wireless medical devices evolves, says Slapin, he sees more doctors using hand-held devices displaying patient charts that they can enter data into and then transmit wirelessly to a central database.

One obstacle to developing wireless data systems for health care, says Slapin, is more social than scientific, with concerns of preserving the privacy of medical records.

Beyond that, he notes the medical profession has historically been slow to change its institutional ways of doing things. But that’s for a reason. When medical records and human lives are at stake, he adds, the industry “has to be conservative and cautious.”

And now, telecommunications industry standardization of wireless transmission protocols used in health care products has yet to be hammered out.

“Microsoft, HP, and every technology company you can think of are trying to get into this,” said Slapin. “Each one is doing it in their own (wireless) standard.”

Clash of Protocol Standards

Richard Campbell, a partner at San Diego law firm Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch LLP, specializes in intellectual property cases involving electronics, communications, software and medical devices.

He, too, sees the big tech players moving to get a piece of the developing wireless health care market. But in San Diego, he notes there are clusters of smaller, early stage companies working on wireless solutions for the niche. And he also notes a clash of wireless protocol standards that will have to be resolved among device makers, be they big or small.

Campbell expects wireless health care products’ telecommunications standards will eventually be piggybacked on existing cell phone and local area network protocols. They are open source platforms without the market restraints of a proprietary protocol used by one company. And because an open source wireless platform is more conducive to broader market use because of its open accessibility, it will offer less risk for investors.

“This is one of the strongest wireless tech hubs in the country,” said Campbell. Because it is a hybrid of health care and wireless technologies, each attract investors that range from the health care arena, venture capital funds and strategic investors.

Health care providers can use wireless device applications for routine monitoring tasks, says Campbell. For example, they can record heart rates and diabetes symptoms that can be sent from patients remotely for doctor database reviews in a hospital. That can limit the number of a patient’s doctor visits and cut costs.

While there may be concerns about how private personal medical data sent wirelessly will be, Campbell doesn’t see it as a technological problem.

“The president of the United States uses a secure cell phone,” he said, as an example.

Challenged to Integrate Systems

The challenge to wireless-based solutions is to be able to offer an entire data collection system that a hospital can incorporate into its existing care delivery system, says Campbell. And developing something for institutional adoption such as that, which includes following federal rules and regulations, he adds, “is never fast, never a one-year turnaround.”

Mark Larson is a freelance writer for the San Diego Business Journal.