A major medical device manufacturer is literally rigging up patients and using the Internet to monitor them.
A peek at the new Web-capable heart monitor was offered to e-healthcare entrepreneurs at the Microsoft Healthcare User's Group conference last month in Las Vegas.
William George, chairman and CEO of Medtronic, the Minneapolis-based maker of pacemakers, says he sees a revolution coming in healthcare that will be fueled by patients linked to and empowered by the Internet.
George wasn't just speaking metaphorically as he touted Medtronic's newest product, the Chronicle Patient Management System, a monitor designed to be implanted in a patient's heart chamber. He called the Chronicle "the medical equivalent of General Motors' OnStar system." The system has twice the computing power of a Pentium III processor, George said.
In video clips interspersed with his speech, George demonstrated a device that can gather, store and broadcast data from a patient's chest, transmitting the information up to 30 feet away to a receiver on a bedside table. The receiver is connected to a phone line and the Internet.
In the demonstration video, variations in heart activity triggered the device, which sent the data via the Internet to a clinical attendant, who reviewed the distress signal and called the doctor.
George said there are 20 patients wired with the implant and the wireless home monitor. Patients can access their own data on the Web as well as clinical information about their conditions and their personalized healthcare plans.
Medtronic's device is still in trials and is being funded by the company. The company says it is too soon to discuss issues such as what the product would cost on the market and how insurers might handle coverage of the device.
After George's presentation, Michael O'Toole, a cardiologist from Downers Grove, Ill., questioned him.
Clinically, O'Toole says, it would be wonderful to have 24 hour a day data readings from patients. But with no way to bill Medicare or commercial insurance for remote, online patient consultations, "I'll be put out of business if I implanted them all," he says.
George concedes: "We've got to change that. We've got to file for new reimbursement codes for a therapeutic consultation."
Medtronic reported $5 billion in sales of pacemakers and other medical devices in its fiscal year ending April 30, 2000, posting nearly $1.1 billion in pretax earnings and a five-year annual earnings per share growth rate of 23%.
Similar Medtronic monitors have been implanted in about 100 patients so far, says William Abraham, M.D., co-director of the Gill Heart Institute and chief of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Abraham is working with Medtronic on the clinical trials.
Abraham says more than a dozen of his patients have been implanted, though none of them with monitors capable of broadcasting automatically at distances depicted in the demonstration video. Abraham's patients use portable, external monitors to manually read their data.
Abraham calls the Chronicle monitor "an absolutely beautiful thing."
One of his patients implanted with the device recently took a trip to Los Angeles, where she experienced shortness of breath, Abraham says. While in Los Angeles, she transmitted her data over the telephone to a secure, dedicated Internet portal set up to receive it.
Abraham, more than 2,000 miles away in Lexington, logged into the portal and read the woman's heart. Her heart was doing fine, Abraham said, and her breathing problems were due to a separate lung ailment.
"Without this kind of information, our only alternative would have been to tell her to please go to the nearest emergency room and be evaluated," Abraham says.
Jim Stacy, 49, of Lexington, is another Abraham patient. When Stacy, who has suffered two heart attacks, read about the clinical trial in the newspaper, he called to volunteer. His monitor was implanted in late September.
"It's already been helpful," Stacy says. He, too, recently suffered distress. Stacy says he has not yet received his portable monitor so he went to a clinic to have his data read, enabling doctors to rule out heart problems.
WebMD Corp. and Microsoft Corp. are partnering with Medtronic on the Web end of the system.