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Making the Old New Again

By Kim Bellard, January 22, 2015

I always love it when someone looks at something familiar in a completely new way.  I only wish health care had more examples of that.

The example of this kind of totally fresh thinking that caught my eye concerns traffic lights.  If researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, led by Professor Ozan Tonguz, have their way, those familiar yellow boxes with the lights could become unnecessary.

The CMU researchers have developed "virtual traffic lights" (not to be confused with the separate CMU "smart traffic signals" project).  Instead of using physical traffic lights, lights would show up on the driver's dashboard as needed.  As Professor Tonguz told CNN: "With this technology, traffic lights will be created on demand when [two cars] are trying to cross this intersection, and they will be turned down as soon as we don't need it,"

The researchers claim the virtual, on-demand signal could reduce commuting times by 40%, as well as reduce carbon emissions and accidents.  And, of course, we wouldn't need all those physical lights; think of the savings on new lights, poles, and wires, plus on ongoing maintenance.

All that would be required is that every car -- and that means, every car -- is equipped with the required vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology.  No small task!  Some think this could happen in a year or two, others a decade or two.  Either way, it's mind-blowing to think that such a familiar part of our driving experience could be so utterly transformed by what seems, in retrospect, such an obvious solution.

Let's contrast this kind of thinking with health care.  Yes, I know -- health care has plenty of new technology and many kinds of improved treatments, but I'm not sure we're getting a lot of reinventing.  Where are our virtual traffic lights?

One small -- well, maybe not so small at that -- health care example is a new patient tracking system called PatientStormTracker, developed by Lyntek Medical.  As the name suggests, PatientStormTracker borrows from weather tracking to present patient monitoring data as systemic color monitoring.  Instead of trying to follow the usual rows and rows of data, clinicians can actually see a patient's status -- color-coded -- and watch it progress in real time, including which body systems are currently being impacted and how much.  

Lyntek's founder and CEO, Dr. Laurence Lynn, told The Columbus Dispatch that traditional patient monitoring is like a fire alarm -- either on or off.  As he said: "We have this simple fire alarm idea that existed from the 1980s, and it didn’t evolve, it didn’t improve."  Dr. Lynn wants to monitor patterns and detect trends earlier, when interventions are more likely to be effective.  PatientStormTracker is in clinical trials.  

One proponent of radical changes in health care has long been Dr. Eric Topol, who happens to have a new book out (The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine Is In Your Hands).  I have not yet read his book, but I did read his related op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.  His version of virtual traffic lights, if you will, is the smartphone.

Dr. Topol outlines not just increasingly common functions like virtual visits or monitoring using a smartphone, but also apps that assist with testing and even diagnosis.  I especially like his prediction that wearable sensors will make it possible that "...except for ICUs, operating rooms and emergency rooms, hospitals of the future are likely to be roomless data surveillance centers for remote patient monitoring."  That would certainly upend how we view hospitals...finally.

Perhaps those remote patient monitors will use something like PatientStormTracker.

The smartphone technology options are cool, but what Dr. Topol sees as an even more important trend in putting all the newly-captured data in the cloud, mining it, and using it to target interventions.

Changes are going to come at us from seemingly left field.  We can never be quite sure where they will lead. It just takes some innovator to see the familiar in a different way -- and then manage to convince us, and the medical-industrial complex, to change.  

This post is an abridged version of the posting in Kim Bellard’s blogsite. Click here to read the full posting

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