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The key to better health care may already be in your pocket... and it's not your wallet


By Mary Kozelka
Rock Center

It happened on flight from Washington, DC to San Diego.

The pilot’s urgent question reverberated over the intercom during a cross country flight, “Is there a doctor on board?” A passenger was experiencing severe chest pains, and luckily for him Dr. Eric Topol was sitting in seat 6A. 

Topol is the energetic chief academic officer of Scripps Health, a prominent cardiologist and the foremost figure in the field of wireless medicine. He believes the future of health lies in our own hands, namely in our smart phones and other portable electronic devices.  According to Topol, “the smart phone will be the hub of the future of medicine.  And it will be your health-medical dashboard.”

That day on the airplane, Dr. Topol displayed the potential of wireless medicine when he snapped an AliveCor device onto his iPhone and performed a cardiogram at 30,000 feet. Using this portable, cellphone powered device, Topol was able to see that the passenger was definitely having a heart attack and he recommended an urgent landing. The passenger was rushed to the hospital and survived.

Topol said this was a “Eureka!” moment for him; such devices could lead to better and cheaper health care everywhere, from airplanes to senior citizen’s homes.

 “These days, I’m prescribing a lot more apps than I am medications,” he continued.

Topol points to a growing number of apps and devices, none of which he is paid for using or endorsing, that are capable of measuring vital signs and then transmitting that data to smartphones. Whether it’s your blood sugar levels, your heart rate or your sleep habits, Topol believes we should track our own conditions through our phones and use that data to see patterns and warning signs of illness.

Topol speaks of a not-so-distant future where human beings are digitized through sensors in the bloodstream. He explains, “By having a sensor in the blood, we can pick up all sorts of things, whether it's cells coming off an artery lining [indicating heart attack], whether it's the first cancer cell getting in the bloodstream, whether it's the immune system revving up for asthma or diabetes or you name it.  All these things, will be detected by sensors in the blood which will then talk to the phone.”

And when one of these warning signs is picked up by the sensor, a special ring will be sent to your cell phone. Like an engine warning light on your car’s dashboard, this ring will indicate that trouble is brewing in a certain area of the body. Ideally, this would prevent life threatening incidents, like heart attack.

Topol calls the medical community ossified for its hesitance to embrace wireless technology. This he sees as destructive to the advancement of medicine.

He is similarly critical what he calls “population medicine”, in other words, one standard method of treatment used on all patients.  He says that mandated mass screenings, such as the annual mammogram for women over 50, are not only wasteful, but can cause needless anxiety from false positives and biopsies.  Only 12% of women will ever get breast cancer, so instructing that all women be screened yearly exposes many to unnecessary radiation and often leads to false positives and biopsies causing needless anxiety for both the patient and his or her family.

When describing medicine today, Topol says most doctors “fire into a black box, give someone medication, go home and pray."  He argues that instead, in the near future, everyone should have his or her DNA sequenced which would reveal what diseases or conditions an individual is prone to, and also what types of drugs will or will not be effective for that particular individual.  Topol is in full support of DNA sequencing, but there is some controversy regarding how effective DNA sequencing is when it comes to predicting illness.

Right now a full DNA sequencing costs about $2,500, but Topol expects that within the year, the cost will drop by more than half. It is his hope that DNA sequencing will soon be affordable for all.

Topol further predicts that finding a cure to ailments from cancer to heart disease depends on sharing our medical information. He insists that if we were serious about the war on cancer, every single person who had the disease would get his or her tumor genome sequenced, record treatment techniques and outcomes, and then make it all public knowledge.  This data combined has extraordinary potential.

His enthusiasm is infectious as he describes his vision for the near future, “If we started to bring all this information together, the acceleration of knowledge and the transformation of what we could do for the future of disease would be extraordinary.”