Dr. Eric Topol is on a mission to get healthcare out of the mess its in by prescribing apps, not medication. Dr. Topol is looking to eliminate fees for tests and technicians using smartphones and newer technology. He is currently leading the “Wired for Health” study in which a total of 100 individuals in the Monitoring Group will be provided with iPhones and the wireless device(s) most appropriate for monitoring their particular medical diagnosis. Patients will use the devices for a period of six months. The study will look at the patients’ health care insurance claims and compare them to the insurance claims of the 100-person Control Group. Dr. Topol hopes that one day your phone could share your vital signs with your doctors via the internet possibly lower the mortality rate of heart attack.
The add-on to the iPhone is a $199 version of a hospital-grade electrocardiogram machine that sells for much more. By getting the reading of the heart rhythm himself, Topol says, he’s saved the patient from going to a special station with a trained technician who will spend 15 minutes hooking up wires.
Moments later, Khan pulls out a Vscan, an ultrasound device made by GE Healthcare that resembles a large flip phone. With Topol looking on, Khan squirts gel on the man’s chest and then scans his heart’s chambers with a wand attached to the device. “His function looks actually not so bad,” says Topol, adding that most doctors charge $600 to perform an ultrasound using a $350,000 machine. But Topol bills nothing when it’s done as part of a routine physical exam like this. “There are 125 million ultrasound studies done in the United States each year,” says Topol, shaking his head. He says “probably 80 percent” of those could be done with the Vscan at no extra charge.
Topol is a doctor on a mission and not for the first time. A decade ago, he was at the center of another battle over medical evidence and billionaire profits. That one, involving the pain medication Vioxx, ended with the $2.5-billion-a-year drug pulled off the market after Topol and others raised safety concerns. In 2007, when Topol arrived at Scripps, he began rabble-rousing again, this time by proselytizing against what he calls the American practice of selling “medicine by the yard” or of favoring technologies that raise revenues.
Topol, who heads Scripps Translational Science Institute, has many irons in the fire. A “Wellderly” study underway is expected to analyze the genomes of 2,000 healthy people over 85, hunting for clues to explain why they won the health lottery. Another study led by Topol asks whether ZioPatch, a Band-Aid sized heart monitor that people wear for up to two weeks, can more readily detect heart arrhythmias than the clunky Holter monitor used for 50 years. The Holter monitor relies on wires attached to different parts of the chest sending signals to a device worn around the neck or on the hip.
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