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Wireless industry wants in on health care stimulus money

Wireless industry is hoping it can reap the rewards of billions of dollars being spent on health care technology as part of the economic stimulus package.

Cisco Systems

Companies in the wireless industry hope they can jump on the stimulus spending gravy-train as hospitals and other medical facilities seek money from the government's economic stimulus package.

Wireless in the health care industry was a big highlight at last week's CTIA Wireless 2009 trade show in Las Vegas, where Dr. Eric Topol, chief academic officer of Scripps Health, gave a speech and demonstrated how wireless operations can benefit health care.

And this week, many wireless companies and several other big technology companies are gathering in Chicago at a health care technology trade show. Several companies such as Dell, Cisco Systems, and Google have made announcements at the conference touting new initiatives or products in the health care sector.

While many of these companies have already been working for years on products targeted at the health care segment, a new influx of money from the federal government is fueling even more interest, especially at a time when hospitals and medical facilities may have been looking toward cutting their technology spending due to the economy.

In February, Congress allocated $792 billion toward an economic stimulus program, which includes a total of $59 billion to be spent on improving the health care system. Don Jones, vice president of business development, health care, at Qualcomm believes that a portion of this money can be used to deploy wireless technology that will help physicians, researchers, hospitals, and other medical facilities improve efficiency and patient care as well as reduce spending.

For example, $19 billion is being allocated to help doctors, hospitals, and other medical agencies convert from paper to electronic medical records. While electronic medical records themselves have nothing to do with wireless technology, Jones said that wireless devices that gather information that feeds into these medical records via a wireless network make the actual electronic record more valuable.

He said that the most useful electronic records will be able to take data directly from diagnostic devices and from monitoring devices wirelessly, which means that medical professionals won't have to enter the information manually. This will not only increase the efficiency of the health care worker who doesn't have to waste time manually entering data, but it will also reduce the possibility of human error from keying in data.

"Because it makes so much sense to use wireless technology to gather information for electronic records, a lot of the solutions will naturally skew toward wireless," he said. "When money hits the table, anyone buying these solutions will realize that they only get real value from them if they are wirelessly connected. Otherwise you're just buying an electronic typewriter."

Qualcomm, which makes wireless chips for cell phones and other portable devices, has been working on wireless solutions for the medical industry for the past six years. It has already helped fund the development of several devices. For example, it was an early investor in a company called CardioNet that has developed a remote heart condition monitor. The way it works is that a patient constantly wears a set of wired patches attached near the heart which transmit information to a wireless personal digital assistant. And the information is then sent to a patient's doctor.

Potential in wireless
But Qualcomm isn't the only company to see big potential in providing wireless technology to the health care industry. General Electric and Intel announced last week they will co-market their wireless monitoring systems. These companies have estimated the market for tele-health devices to grow from $3 billion this year to $7.7 billion by 2012.

Frances Dare, director of health care practice and the Internet business solutions group at Cisco, which has tailored products for the health care industry for more than six years, said that since the stimulus bill was passed by Congress there has been a surge in interest among customers to get projects deployed quicker.

And the reason is simple. The quicker that doctors, hospitals, and other health care facilities deploy electronic health records, the more money they receive. For example, organizations that deploy their solutions by 2011 will get more money than agencies that complete the transition in 2013 or 2015.

"Folks who had started to think about moving toward electronic health records are now accelerating those plans to get the full benefit of the stimulus money," she said.

Cisco is one of those massive technology companies that will likely benefit in multiple ways from the stimulus money. Even though it doesn't make any products for creating electronic records, it provides the infrastructure that hospitals and other health care agencies need to shuttle the information back and forth. It also provides the data center equipment and network security products that will be used to store and secure these records.

But for all the different parts of Cisco that will benefit from this transition, Dare said that wireless networks will be a huge component of new plans to make hospitals and medical facilities more efficient and more productive.

Cisco Wi-Fi phones are used in hospitals to keep nurses connected. Cisco Systems

Not only are wireless monitoring products important, but Dare said that wireless technology is important for helping hospital staff communicate with one another. On Monday, Cisco unveiled its Cisco Nurse Connect solution, which integrates nurse call applications from third-party vendors with Cisco's Unified Wireless IP 7925G phones. These phones, which operate over a Wi-Fi network, allow nurses to locate each other and their patients, send call alerts to caregivers, and improve scheduling and bed management.

Whether wireless is being used purely for voice or text communication between medical professionals or it's used to transmit data that is being remotely monitored, there is a huge opportunity for companies large and small. During his keynote speech at CTIA, Dr. Topol said that wireless would be "transformative for health care." And that it would represent, "a sea change in the way medicine can be practiced."

He highlighted several applications and devices that could be used to help monitor chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease. He cited simple examples, such as a mobile-phone application that can coach diabetics on diet and exercise or an application that reminds people to take their medication.

He also showed the audience more sophisticated wireless monitoring products, like the disposable heart monitor, about the size of a small bandage, that he taped to his chest to monitor his heart rate with the electrocardiogram displayed on his iPhone. The device wirelessly transmitted the data to the phone. He said that such an application could be useful in monitoring people with heart problems, especially those with congestive heart failure.

Jones, who has worked with Topol as part of the new wireless medical research facility that will be built in San Diego, said that the disposable bandage monitor can save billions of dollars for the health care industry.

"Congestive heart failure is the No. 1 reason people are admitted to hospitals," he said. "And it costs between $45,000 and $60,000 every time someone is admitted. And most people are admitted because they haven't been adequately evaluated and monitored."

Jones said that deploying some of the more sophisticated wireless solutions will take big investments, but he said that they will also help save a great deal of money too, which is something that the Obama administration is very interested in achieving as part of the stimulus investment in health care.

"We simply can't afford to continue the escalation of costs associated with health care as it relates to the percentage of GDP (or gross domestic product)," he said. "We need to lower costs. And wireless technology, especially those built on low-cost consumer products, can go a long way to reducing costs."