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Vision to ease chronic illness

Sherrod Woods, a Chicago native and an electrical engineer with software and biomedical engineering experience, is winning recognition for a project that would let patients with chronic illnesses send their vital signs to nurses and doctors without having to own a computer. He demonstrated his system to Christ Medical Center Emergency Room Doctor Erik Kulstad by taking his own blood pressure. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

A Chicago State University “Entrepreneurial Idol” contest revealed a new frontier of remote medicine intended to make patient care easier and quicker than ever before.

The winner of the Business School contest, Sherrod Woods, a LeClaire Courts neighborhood native and an electrical engineer with 20 years of software and biomedical engineering experience, proposed a system to let patients with chronic illnesses send their vital signs to nurses and doctors without having to own a computer.

Woods, 43, who founded a company 10 years ago to realize his vision, won $10,000 and free business consulting.

The idea is particularly timely as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments March 26-28 on President Obama’s health-care overhaul and as the legislation marks its second anniversary on Friday amid continued controversy.

Woods’ company, 3 Net Wise, proposes to provide a plug-in communications device that doesn’t require a patient to have Internet access or to punch in readings.

The system would use a patent-pending communications device to read vital signs from off-the-shelf wireless devices such as weight scales, lung capacity measuring tools and glucose and blood pressure monitors. The plug-in would send those readings in real time using encryption to a secure web server.

“Our system weighs less than 27 ounces, and allows several specialists, including a doctor, a nurse and a pharmacist, to see and ‘discuss’ the results through live streaming audio and video and chat-text in real time,” said Woods, who has worked as a software engineer at Motorola and as a biomedical engineer at GE Healthcare. “That’s a significant way to reduce medical errors.”

The 3 Net Wise system also would record each healthcare discussion and store it in the patient’s electronic medical record.

Healthcare providers have been monitoring patients’ vital signs from a distance via video and telecommunications technologies for several years, with perhaps the oldest example being the Veterans Administration’s nine-year-old telehealth services program that aims to reach 100,000 veterans by year’s end.

About 200,000 people nationwide are now getting treatment at home through mobile monitoring devices, says the American Telemedicine Association.

Those numbers are expected to skyrocket with wider availabilities of smartphones, biometric sensors, high-speed wireless networks and an emerging battle among telecom, IT and health-care companies to provide monitoring services.

Cost incentives are at work, too: Next year, hospitals will start facing cuts in Medicare in-patient reimbursements if trends show too high a number of patients being readmitted within 30 days of their initial admission for a heart attack, pneumonia, congestive heart failure or other preventable crises.

“More than 75 percent of healthcare costs come from managing patients with chronic conditions,” said Lynne A. Dunbrack, program director of health IT strategies with IDC Health Insights, a research firm based in Framingham, Mass. “Already, 9 percent of consumers are using fitness and personal health monitoring, even it it’s a pedometer, to manage their health, and 59 percent are paying all of the costs.”

The federal government also is searching for ways to cut costs for the elderly poor who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid, and state governments are setting up health-insurance exchanges required by President Obama’s still-disputed health care overhaul.

Woods said the remote-monitoring systems also can create up to 10 jobs per 100 home-monitored patients, many of whom live in neighborhoods that desperately need employment.

Big companies are already jumping into the field, with Motorola Mobility confirming that it has started telehealth monitoring tests in undisclosed markets, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield, AT&T, Verizon and various software providers setting up programs, too.

Though some experts predict the health-monitoring business will grow to $2.6 billion in 2014 from $770 million in 2009 and that 3 million people will use smartphone-enabled remote patient monitoring by 2016, others say the adoption won’t necessarily be a slam dunk.

Doctors question how viably smartphones can take readings and render images, and incentives must align among a complicated network of doctors, patients, payers and vendors.

And people generally don’t do a great job taking care of themselves.

“Most of us struggle mightily to change our habits, and that includes the habit of monitoring and taking care – or not – of our health,” said Elizabeth Boehm, principal analyst for customer experience at Forrester Research.

Yet techies and Trekkers remain optimistic. Qualcomm is offering a $10 million prize to anyone who can develop a “tricorder” like the one used in Star Trek to instantly diagnose a patient’s problems with a quick wave of the device.