David Kerr: Angry bird medicine

David Kerr“I want this company to be bigger than Sanofi-Aventis in ten years time” was the opening line from a (successful) entrepreneur I met the other day. He might be right given the resources being poured into creating technology for the healthcare market here in Silicon Valley these days. The concept is straightforward – choose a disease and bring all evidence based medicine to one place, invariably on a mobile phone platform app and translate the data to make it understandable to the user i.e. patients. Secondly, create new technologies for self monitoring as many relevant physiological variables (including multiple biomarkers).  Thirdly link the two using software that is based on the approach used successfully for online games and other “verticals” of this genre (angry bird medicine?). Finally launch the new App and connect with patients through social networks. As one other company recently blogged, the aim of this type of approach would be to “improve health and wellbeing by personalising information … to help make the best evidence based decisions.”

Companies like this are very supportive of the notion that there is a need for “free, reliable, and independent health information….the best health decisions take into account personal data, unbiased expert knowledge, and community insights.” They may be successful, at least in some situations, but as a colleague quipped “6 years of medical school and 10 years of training can now be put onto an App and sold for a few dollars – where did I go wrong?”

Elsewhere due to be launched this summer, a group of technology developers have created a new San Francisco incubator focusing specifically on health apps. The idea is to offer entrepreneurs with early stage ideas operational and strategic guidance, including office space, mentorship, and money. The support team contains a mixture of experts in technology, design, legal/intellectual property/FDA, devices, consumer healthcare, clinical medicine, and business. It is open to anyone in the local area that has “an idea or startup that’s working to solve a health related issue.” Applicants are encouraged to apply on line to join “a group of dedicated individuals working to catalyze innovation in the interactive health space.” The budding entrepreneurs are offered a $20,000 startup grant with the potential access to more substantial capital as well as support from a major US clinical center and hospital. Unsurprisingly this is a hot topic on Twitter (@RockHealthFund).

Would the NHS ever embrace this approach? Certainly the idea that trainee consultants have to spend time in research if they want to reach their career goal is no longer a consistent feature of specialist medical training. Nowadays it is very difficult to set up a one (wo)man project around a research question that has arisen out of simple curiosity. In any case the time taken to obtain ethics approval for a study would probably be longer that the time the trainee is in their post. Perhaps the NHS should think about creating an “ideas incubator” where the concept of entrepreneurship in health is developed and nurtured in trainees using a business approach similar to the above? The trainee would benefit by having an opportunity to be creative and to gain insights into the business world. The NHS would have the potential to benefit from any product and also an early stage partner with successful technology companies.

Elsewhere one local hospital has been showing off its new premises highlighting that it uses electronic patient records and provides internet access for patients and their families. Each of the more than 240 single rooms has state of the art patient lifting technology to prevent injury to staff and the option for patient (and their relatives) meals cooked to order and delivered at requested times. The hospital also has four meditation and healing gardens and walking trails for patients, visitors, employees, and the neighbours. However, given recent news and the fact that the San Andreas fault runs right through this area, locals are more interested and grateful that the hospital has been built to withstand an 8.0 earthquake.

David Kerr is the managing editor of the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology.