TEDMED: Wireless health has killed the stethoscope

By: Brian Dolan | Oct 29, 2009        

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Topol: wireless health has killed the scethoscope“Medicine is going to be vastly different,” Chief Medical Officer of the West Wireless Health Institute, Dr. Eric Topol told attendees at the TEDMED event in San Diego this week. “As a cardiologist for the past 25 years, I can tell you that the stethoscope is dead.” The stethoscope, which was created in 1816 won’t be used by doctors in 2016, Topol said.

“What has changed our society is wireless devices. How we listen to music. How we communicate. The latest frontier is how we read. This has been an enormous change in a very short period of time. That is the story of digital wireless devices, but the future we are talking about here at TEDMED are digital healthcare wireless devices,” Topol said.

Today we already have medical applications that enable doctors to monitor electrocardiograms in real-time and from a patient who could be anywhere in the world. That’s just the beginning, however, Topol said.

“You are checking your email as you sit here,” Topol said. “Checking the web when you are bored. In the future you will check in on your own vital signs heart, oxygen, temperature,” and so on. That’s not very far away from today — thanks to non-invasive band-aid like sensors, Topol said.

Topol also predicted that in a few weeks, an application that enables you to monitor “every minute of your sleep” on your smartphone, including descriptions of the states of sleep are detailed in this unnamed application. Topol mentioned two sleep monitors — one from Zeo and one from NeuroVigil — so it’s likely the wireless app Topol tipped to launch in a few weeks was one of those two.

Topol also noted that just a week ago GE had unveiled a handheld ultrasound device: “It’s about the same size as a BlackBerry,” Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, told attendees at an event in San Francisco last week while holding up the white device that has a similar form factor to an old flip-phone. Topol said that these devices could be distributed to patients for use at home to monitor for breast cancer and other conditions on a regular basis, which could help doctors catch some of these diseases sooner.

The Holter monitor is another technology that Topol said was “obsolete” and “soon to be buried technology” by a sensor, a tiny patch that can be worn for two weeks: iRhythm. Over the course of the next year, Topol said that iRhythm and similar technology will become a routine technology, while Holter monitors won’t be used.

While many of the devices and applications that Topol discussed were clinician-facing, he did mention that consumer driven healthcare is one of the big movements pushing wireless health forward. Topol said he spent the last few weeks trying out a few of these consumer-facing, wireless health devices, and the results were not all glowing.

The first one Topol reviewed was FitBit, a consumer fitness devices that helps users monitor food intake, physical activity and weight. The device only automatically tracks activity levels and even for that it’s not complete, Topol said. While Topol was gratified that the device picked up the 42 minutes of exercise he had done earlier that day, he was surprised by one request that the device’s online portal asked him: “You want to log sexual activity how long did you do it for?” FitBit asks users to record the hours, minutes and seconds as well as the intensity of the sexual activity.

“This just doesn’t work,” Topol said.

Topol said that because about 80 major diseases have been cracked on the genomic front in the past few years, more has been learned about the underpinnings of disease in the past 2.5 years than was learned about diseases during the whole course of human history. We now have a much better idea and can predict who is going to get Type 2 Diabetes; who is going to get breast cancer; who is likely get atrial fibrillation; who is likely to have sudden heart failure. Each of these conditions also has a corresponding wireless health sensor or device that can help us prevent and predict on the individual level: Continuous glucose monitoring sensors, ultrasound device for breast cancer, iRhythm for atrial fibrillation patients and vital sign monitoring sensors for sudden heart failure.

“It is profound,” Topol said. The wireless medicine of tomorrow enables the continuous tracking of all physiological metrics, enables us to determine the individual physiology, enables us to focus on prevent. Finally, this is all consumer-driven, Topol said.

“Yuu own this health data,” Topol said. “Your data is on on the phone… This is truly disruptive.”