ATLANTA – Convergence. It's a word that for years has been used to describe the interrelated dynamics of the entertainment industry's various sectors – TV shows, for instance, spun off into movies, the movies into video games and who knows what other consumer goods.
Yesterday, William Hawkins, president/COO of Medtronic (Minneapolis) came to the Georgia World Congress Center, for the Georgia Life Sciences Summit, to make the case for the impact of technological convergence in developing new healthcare products – his illustrations coming from various industries and their combined expertise.
As a preface, he provided one fact about Medtronic that illustrates that company's breadth of reach and combination of technologies — that "every five seconds someone in the world" has his or her life improved "due to a Medtronic device."
And, secondly, he said that 70% to 80% of all physician visits are associated with chronic disease, with aging Baby Boomers now set to swell those numbers and most living with at least one chronic disease by the time they reach their 60s.
Hawkins said he would "make the case that the future is really all about the integration of technologies" to meet this challenge.
"Disease management continues to transfer and evolve," he said. Increasingly, for instance, physicians' approaches to disease management have moved from cutting open their patients and "taking things out" to implanting devices, such as pacemakers, in the body for more effective treatment, he noted.
The merging of devices and drugs – most dramatically in drug-eluting stent technology is one example of this, but Hawkins noted also the pervasive combination of devices with information technology.
Enabled by powerful new sensor technology, disease will be diagnosed, treated and monitored with new device systems. And he said that sensor systems such as these will move much healthcare technology and treatment management from "passive to active."
"Imagine a world where a 70-year-old is at home asleep," he said, and a device not only detects an irregular heartbeat, but "corrects it without the man even waking up."
Pushing even further imaginatively, he described the likely development of digital devices capable of transmitting patient data ahead to a hospital or emergency room before the patient's arrival, greatly speeding treatment.
To some extent, that technology is already available, he noted, giving the CareLink System – Medtronic's remote monitoring systems for implanted devices – as an example.
The Carelink basic service allows a patient to connect his or her implanted device, via standard phone line, "allowing [a] doctor to conduct a routine check-up or review a special situation" no matter where the patient is, according to the company, within certain limits.
For patients implanted with Medtronic's wireless devices, the Concerto cardiac resynchronization implantation device or its Virtuoso implantable defibrillators, the CareLink Network offers Conexus Wireless Telemetry, which offers continual monitoring and check-ups when the patient is asleep, according to the company.
Hawkins said the Concerto, approved by the FDA earlier this year, essentially establishes a "two-way communication device" (Medical Device Daily, May 18, 2006).
Currently, Medtronic reports having 80,000 patients on its CareLink system.
In addition to these new sensor systems, Hawkins pointed to signal and computer processing, artificial intelligence, predictive modeling and miniaturization as available for future examples of healthcare convergence.
Technology is enabling physicians the ability to get information concerning patients "with an ease that was unthinkable even a few years ago," according to Hawkins.
"Today, we have an unprecedented ability to harvest information from the human body," he added.
Hawkins emphasized that implanted devices are no longer the "scary devices" that they used to be. They often come in much smaller packages and frequently make it possible for people with chronic diseases to self-manage these more effectively.
Emerging technologies such as those listed above also have "tremendous implications" for diabetics who are dependent on insulin. Imagine the technology that allows for a "closed loop system," whereby a glucose monitoring/pump system acts as an artificial pancreas, or that "delivers information without human intervention."
Medtronic is working to develop such a system, and it made a major leap forward in this area earlier this year when it reported FDA approval of the MiniMed Paradigm Real-Time Insulin Pump and Continuous Glucose Monitoring System, which integrates the two components (MDD, April 14, 2006).
Information devices go "beyond two devices sharing information," Hawkins said.
In the future, for example, he said it will be possible to go online to check one's own heartbeat and do this as routinely as going online to check a bank balance, Hawkins said.
But the advances are not just technology for technology's sake, he said. "While this is a technology-led revolution, it is clearly about people."
As an example of this emphasis, he said that technology, importantly, "will earn its keep by preventing emergencies" in greater numbers and, as a result, keep more people out of the hospital.
"The time has come" for the convergence of biologics, medical devices and information technology, Hawkins said, and he predicted that it will result in "more cost-efficient care."
As for changing the models of healthcare, Hawkins said that, in the future, it likely will be commonplace for patients to "pay maybe a monthly fee for a chronic disease management system" that provides monitoring and treatment, all in one.