Scalpel, stat! Forceps, stat! iPod, stat!

Every week Techvibes will be republishing an article from Business in Vancouver newspaper.

This article was originally published in issue #1032 – August 4 – 10, 2009.

Kendall Ho, an emergency room physician, admits that he is no technology expert. But as director of the eHealth strategy office in the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine, Ho heads a team of researchers tasked with exploring how the latest communication technologies, like the Internet and the iPod, can improve health care.

It’s a big job: the eHealth strategy office works closely with the province’s Ministry of Health, health-care professionals, professors and international agencies like the United Nations to introduce new technologies at every level of health care; from the education of nursing students right through to health-care delivery.

While the health-care system requires specialized skills and advanced training, it has remained largely disconnected from the larger wireless world.

That’s all changing.

UBC’s eHealth strategy office, which was formed last fall, has built a web 2.0 portal to help patients manage chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

The office is delivering information to patients through mobile devices like the Blackberry.

“[But] we don’t invent, we don’t innovate new technologies,” said Ho. “The business community – we need a lot of their expertise.”

As health care becomes increasingly wired-in, wireless developers are playing a larger role in advancing the industry.

In B.C., companies such as Vigil Health Solutions Inc., CardioComm Solutions Inc. and Adigy Canada are part of a small but emerging cluster of firms developing wireless systems and technologies for hospitals and physicians’ offices.

However, wireless developers are discovering what drug developers have known for years: tapping into the health-care market is a long and arduous process.

Regulators, insurance companies, hospital administrators, and others stand between technology developers and the patient.

“A lot of time, the technology is not the problem – there has to be the will from the other side, from the hospitals and health-care system, to implement it,” said Christina Chowaniec, communications and community co-ordinator of the Wireless Innovation Network of British Columbia, which co-hosted a wireless health forum with LifeSciences BC last month to bring together wireless companies and health-care professionals.

Ho noted, however, that businesses have to be patient with the health-care industry’s adoption timeframes.

“We welcome those companies who really want to make a difference in health … and [who] also want to understand the health-care market before coming and saying, ‘Hey, here’s the latest and greatest for you.’”

Ho sees new communication technologies as part of the solution to the shortage of health-care workers that many countries face.

New technologies could better equip health-care workers in remote locations who often burn out as result of, among other things, isolation.

Wireless 2000, a Burnaby company that has developed a wireless system for monitoring and assessing elderly patients and patients with such ailments as dementia and Alzheimer’s, received approval from the U.S. Federal Drug Administration last January.

A hospital at Duke University is installing the system, which relays information about a patient’s heart rate and respiration rate and uses bracelets to remotely connect patients to a tracking system.

Efraim Gavrilovich, president and CEO of Wireless 2000, said that a challenge for the company is courting the early adopters required to encourage the rest of the health-care system to embrace new technology.

“When you go to any health authority or medical institution with a great product, first question they ask is, ‘Who’s using it today?’” said Gavrilovich.

The company believes its device can have a role in administering telehealth, which is a new concept that envisions physicians using wireless and other communication technologies to monitor and manage patients remotely from their homes.

To be applicable in many of the best hospitals, Wireless 2000 must have its system made compliant with standards that ensure that new technologies can be integrated into existing systems at health-care facilities.

Integration was a fundamental consideration since Day 1 for Vancouver’s Heart Force Medical Inc., which has developed a wireless heart monitor that uses Bluetooth technology to assess heart function by sensing forces generated from heart-muscle contractions.

With the device receiving approval in the U.S. on July 30, Heart Force will largely spend the next two years conducting clinical experience studies.

In the case of Heart Force, such studies are overseen by major cardiovascular centres that can confirm the efficacy of the technology.

“The technology is not the question, it’s the resistance you get from the hospital technology guys, the CIOs,” said Geoff Houlton, Heart Force’s president and CEO.

He added that, for the company’s device to be widely adopted, physicians and cardiologists must be able to claim it under insurance.

That requires further validation of the device through additional independent, peer-reviewed studies.

“We offer a tool that potentially offers the Holy Grail – better, faster, cheaper,” said Houlton.