Medical technology is the missing piece of the healthcare reform debate in this country that sorely needs to be addressed, according to Martyn Howgill, executive director of the Institute for Health Technology Studies (InHealth, Washington), a nonprofit organization that gives funding to institutions researching the benefits of medical devices and diagnostics applications.

Howgill, who has been on several talk radio shows and news programs discussing the healthcare reform debate, spoke with Medical Device Daily yesterday about his concerns that the medical technology could fall between the cracks.

"We think part of the solution would be medical technology," Howgill told MDD. "But its importance has not been appreciated by policymakers, and legislators. It's been under the radar."

Instead what has been on the surface of the sometimes contentious debate are concerns of price, a public option plan and little or no mention of the role innovative devices can have on transforming the way care is delivered and administered.

The latest volley comes from President Obama, who seems to be backing away from the notion that a public plan option is essential in the massive healthcare legislation.

A crucial component, Howgill argues, is for policy maker's ability to see the benefits of innovation and how it contributes to the growth of the economy and a reduction in costs associated with time of care.

"Take for example coronary stents as opposed to coronary artery bypass graft [CABG] procedures," he said. "Look at some of the benefits of the stents. Now there are arguments disputing them, but look at how the stents help cut down on costs. The patient is home sooner, can get back into the workforce more quickly; the recovery time is much quicker than CABG procedures."

He said that most people take for granted the impact medical devices have had on healthcare.

"How do we make the system effective without smothering innovation," he said. "That's the question we would like to see addressed by our policymakers and we don't see that right now."

The nonprofit is currently working on a study that would clearly point out the impact of medical technology to the healthcare industry and what kinds of benefits could come from the devices. Howgill did not indicate when the study would be completed but did sound hopeful that lawmakers would get a chance to receive it before the debate was finished.

To date the 5-year-old organization is striving to have a stronger presence in the med-tech community. While mostly taking in funding from med-tech companies and foundations, the non profit administers that money towards studies and research regarding the medical devices and technology.

Nearly $13 million was raised to launch InHealth, and it provides funding and grants too, in hopes of stimulating innovation. Since its inception, InHealth has funded more than a dozen studies by university-level researchers on topics ranging from the value of clinical laboratory diagnostics to the comparative benefits of drug-eluting stents (DES) over their bare-metal stent (BMS) counterparts.

"We give about $1 million a year, when you compare that to the $1 billion for comparative effectiveness funding available from the stimulus plan we're a David vs. Goliath type scenario," Howgill said.

Last year InHealth doled out nearly $1.7 million in 2-year grants to researchers at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore), Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois), Medical College of Georgia (Augusta), Tufts University (Medford, Massachusetts) and the University of Houston (MDD, October 16, 2008).

Those researchers will explore the cost-benefit effects of insulin pumps, hearing aids, in-vitro diagnostics, genomic diagnostics for personalized medicine and devices used to treat sleep apnea.

Prior to that, the organization gave an unrestricted grant to a study that found patients who receive a DES are less likely to die, have a heart attack, or require costly follow-up surgery than those who receive a BMS, from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (Philadelphia).

The biggest challenge it faces during these tough economic times is the ability to have a stronger presence. Oddly enough he said gifts that come in from private sources have been stable.

"The gift income has been holding steady," he said. "But we have seen more academic institutions come to us for funding. We're hoping to see more in the future.'

Omar Ford, 404-262-5546;