Eko Core, A Digital Upgrade For The Centuries-Old Stethoscope | TechCrunch

Eko Core Digital Stethoscope - product picture
Eko Core Digital Stethoscope

The Eko Core digital stethoscope is a “why didn’t I think of that?” invention.

In a few months, the stethoscope will celebrate its 200th birthday. A medical breakthrough in 1816, it’s still a part of nearly every doctor’s visit today and a symbol of medicine itself.…

Digital Stethoscope

Stripped to its essentials, the Eko Core digital stethoscope is a highly engineered Bluetooth microphone designed to fit medical stethoscopes. The device wirelessly transmits patients’ heart sounds (not EKG) to a smart phone or tablet app.

The Eko Core was invented and commercialized by a team of UC Berkeley engineering graduates (claimed to be the youngest team to secure FDA clearance for a Class II medical device).

What Eko Core did well

In developing and executing its strategy, the Eko Core team did a number of things right:

  • Targeted a huge existing market. Most doctors and many nurses carry and use stethoscopes every day.
  • Recognized and addressed a  nagging clinical problem: It can take years (even decades) to become adept at using a stethoscope to recognize heart sounds.
  • Improved the functionality of the stethoscope by enabling visualization and amplification. Benefit to the user is improved confidence in identification of heart sounds.
  • Made their device a simple, affordable ($199) add-on to the user’s existing stethoscope.
  • Employed a Bluetooth wireless connection to the user’s smart phone or tablet . Data  from the stethoscope is displayed in a custom app.
  • Enabled data sharing via “the cloud” so that users can share typical and atypical heart sounds and learn from each other.
  • Partnered with major EHR suppliers to enable the digital stethoscope data to be entered into the patient’s electronic medical record.
  • Identified the potential for use of the Eko Core to lower healthcare costs by reducing costly referrals to cardiologists for unusual heart sounds.

What Eko Core hasn’t done yet

  • Showed they can be financially successful over time. Medical device sales and marketing is expensive. Manufacturing under FDA, GMP, ISO, etc. regulations can increase costs. Maintaining healthy profit margins on low-priced medical devices can be a challenge.
  • Exhibited a competitive advantage over similar products, Thinklabs for example.
  • Fully protected their intellectual property, although the company did recently file a patent application.
  • Leveraged their technology beyond one-hit wonder status.

Takeaways

The number of medical stethoscope users in the developed world is on the order of several million. Growth rates are slow, with new graduates replacing retirees, etc.  That puts the potential market at around $500-600 million.

Not bad, but once you “pick the low-hanging fruit” and sell to the early adopters and early majority customers, selling more units gets progressively tougher and more costly. And given competition, it’s a race for market share to capture and keep customers.

I think this will be a fun and profitable business for a while. Longer term, I hope Eko Core has a big medical device company lined up as a distribution partner and has an encore product that leverages the same technology and customer base.

Source: The Eko Core Is A Digital Upgrade For The Centuries-Old Stethoscope | TechCrunch

Eko Devices website

Smaller, faster, lighter, cheaper medical devices

http://3278as3udzze1hdk0f2th5nf18c1.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/drop-theranos.jpg
image via singularityhub.com

Is it just me or does it seem that most interesting medical device innovations are coming from startups and not from established companies? Here are a few medical devices being developed that are smaller, faster, lighter, and cheaper than established technologies and products.

The point of care diagnostic system being developed by startup Theranos relies heavily on microfluidic and automation technologies. The technology, while impressive, is not revolutionary. Theranos is using readily accessible technology to develop a point-of-care diagnostic test device that can be operated by virtually anyone. The test uses a pinprick to collect a drop of blood to perform all of its tests. No need for a nurse or technician. The test is completely automated so there is no need for a diagnostic technician.

Time is saved because the sample is processed onsite instead of being transported to a central lab and there is negligible wait time compared with large diagnostic equipment. One of the biggest drawbacks to present diagnostic testing is the wait: patients are anxious and physicians often can’t administer medicine or therapy until and unless an initial diagnosis is confirmed.

Tribogenics is developing the next generation of x-ray imaging technology. From the company website:

Tribogenics technology enables portable, compact X-ray solutions for applications in industrial testing, medical diagnosis, security screening and other industries. By miniaturizing X-ray sources and eliminating the need for high voltage, we can create products and solutions unattainable using existing X-ray technology.

While I’m not sure how big the opportunity is for pocket-sized x-ray machines in medicine, there are plenty of industrial and commercial uses. Plus, the potential for portability, low cost, and simplicity may make the Tribogenics device well-suited for deployment in developing countries with little or no medical infrastructure.

The third technology I’m writing about isn’t a product but a concept. The Smartphone Physical is being termed “the physician’s bag of the 21st century.” In a recent TED Talk, Shiv Gaglani showed that a complete physical exam could be conducted with a smartphone and what are essentially smart attachments. For example, companies have developed or are developing ECG leads, a stethoscope, otoscope, ultrasound wand, and even a spiromoter. Gaglani and his colleagues are creating a database of connected devices and apps and hope to start a company to commercialize the Smartphone Physical.

One concern about the Smartphone Physical is a condition that is described by a new word, cyberchondria. Yes, it means hypochondria that is facilitated (or exacerbated) by the ready availability of digital and connected devices and apps. Don’t think it could happen? Ask any doctor about how many patients self-diagnose on the Internet before their office visit. Cyberchondria is real.

Takeaways: If you can take an existing medical device or technology and improve it by making it smaller, faster, lighter, and/or cheaper, you have the makings of a company. Your new device doesn’t have to be better than what it replaces but it would make it easier to sell if it had the same quality, accuracy, etc.

There are plenty of examples of medical devices that are big, bulky, slow and costly. Give customers two or more benefits based on eliminating or minimizing these undesirable features and you will create a market niche for your products.

Read more:

Small, Fast and Cheap, Theranos Is the Poster Child of Med Tech — and It’s in Walgreen’s | Singularity Hub.

http://www.theranos.com/

California Startup, Tribogenics, Develops Smart Phone Sized Portable X-ray Machines | Singularity Hub.

http://tribogenics.com/

Smartphone Physicals Are Taking Off With Explosion of Apps, Attachments | Singularity Hub.

http://www.smartphonephysical.com/

 

Ranking the best places for healthcare startups

http://www.cbinsights.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/1Top50ExitsNew.png
image via CBinsights.com

Silicon Valley is Mecca for technology companies. When it comes to ranking the best places for healthcare startups, however, the global technology hub seems to be not as dominant.

A common method for ranking the best places for startups is to quantify the number of exits and aggregate valuation in a given time period. A recent report by CB Insights, an investor service focused on early stage companies and emerging industries, says that Massachusetts and not the Bay Area has been more successful in exits for VC-backed healthcare startups.

Healthcare startup categories included medical device, biotech, and pharmaceutical companies.

The analysis also shows that other regions are competitive as well. Southern California had the next highest number of exits in the same time period, 2012-present.

http://www.cbinsights.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/5ValueCreationTableNewFinal.png

The CBinsights report looked at the startup exit data in another way that highlights differences between the regions more clearly. They defined another metric, “Value Creation”. Value Creation is the ratio of the average exit value of a company in the region to the average VC investment in a company in that region. So bigger is better.

As seen in the table, New York comes out on top in this ranking while Silicon Valley lags at little more than half of the New York number. My home state of Washington is even lower on the list. This ranking may reveal why certain regions seem to have an easier time attracting venture capital investment than others. One last and very interesting note: the Value Creation metrics for technology companies are much higher than for healthcare companies. It starts to become clear why there is a dearth of capital investment in the healthcare space. If you are a VC, would you put your money in healthcare or technology?

Takeaways: Although no single city or region in the U.S. dominates when it comes to a great location for healthcare startups, there are a few conclusions that can be drawn from the report.

The East Coast  – Massachusetts in particular but also the New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania tri-state areas are very strong in healthcare startups. Obvious reasons include major population centers for access to a talented and experienced employee pool, large numbers of world-class research universities and medical centers, and close proximity to financial hubs.

Of course, other locations such as Minneapolis, the San Francisco Bay Area (including Silicon Valley), Southern California, and the Seattle Metro area have their drawing power as well. Some of the additional factors include lifestyle, proximity to the FDA and other government officials, and being part of an industry “cluster” (medical device in Minneapolis, biotech in the Bay Area for example).

Read more:

Silicon Valley doesn’t dominate when it comes to VC-backed healthcare exits.

Silicon Valley is Second to Massachusetts for Venture Capital-backed Healthcare Exits.

Price Increases, Not Demand, Have Caused the Massive Hike in U.S. Health Spending

image via wikipedia.org
Life expectancy compared to healthcare spending from 1970 to 2008, in the US and the next 19 most wealthy countries by total GDP (wikipedia.org)

In the USA, we continue to pay more and get less for our healthcare expenditures than any developed country on Earth. What hasn’t been clear is why that is the case in the complex American healthcare system. A paper in the latest edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere asserts that price increases and not demand have caused the massive hike in U.S. health spending over the past few decades.

The researchers used publicly available data to identify trends in health care from 1980 to 2011. They examined and analyzed the source and use of funds, patients and providers, and finally the value created by the expenditures and health outcomes.

image via blogs.wsj.com

The researchers found that US health care expenditures have doubled since 1980 as a percentage of US gross domestic product (GDP), to well over 1/6 of the total economy. Growth in healthcare spending has far outpaced that of other OECD countries. Most of the OECD countries have either some form of single payer healthcare or public option health insurance along with government-imposed price controls on healthcare components. The U.S., of course, has none of these.

The article notes that annual growth in the rate of healthcare spending has decreased since 1970, and especially since 2002. That’s typical of large entities – Google and Microsoft experienced the same effect as they grew and aged. The average healthcare spending growth rate, however, stands at 3% per year. The 3% average annual growth in spending is more than overall GDP growth and is more than the average growth in any other industry. Moreover, the share of the healthcare system funded by government increased significantly, from 31.1% in 1980 to 42.3% in 2011.

Of course, as has been noted in this blog and elsewhere, all of this spending has resulted in lower life expectancies at birth as well as lower survival rates for many chronic diseases compared to other developed countries. The conventional wisdom has been that soaring demand for healthcare and the needs of the increasing elderly population have been responsible for the increases in spending, along with “inefficiencies” and the ever popular “defensive medicine”. Not so, according to this analysis:

The findings from this analysis contradict several common assumptions. Since 2000, price (especially of hospital charges [+4.2%/y], professional services [3.6%/y], drugs and devices [+4.0%/y], and administrative costs [+5.6%/y]), not demand for services or aging of the population, produced 91% of cost increases; (2) personal out-of-pocket spending on insurance premiums and co-payments have declined from 23% to 11%; and (3) chronic illnesses account for 84% of costs overall among the entire population, not only of the elderly.

So hospital charges, physicians’ fees, drugs, medical devices, and administrative costs (medical insurance) have all risen faster over the past ten or so years than the overall rate of increase in spending for healthcare. Also note that chronic diseases among the general population, not just the elderly, account for a whopping 84% of all healthcare costs. In fact, the study found that chronic conditions in people younger than 65 account for 2/3 of all health care costs. It’s clear to me what’s driving the increases, and it’s not in keeping with conventional wisdom.

Additionally, despite what most people perceive to be ever-increasing co-pays, premiums, and deductibles, out-of-pocket spending decreased more than 50% (as a portion of total spending) over the same period. That means most people are disconnected from the economic realities of healthcare spending. No wonder we can’t decide how to fix things – we can’t even figure out exactly what’s broken!

The article also points out that three broad trends are responsible for much of the changes over the time period in the study: consolidation of providers reducing competition, an emphasis on information technology that has yet to produce tangible benefits, and empowerment of the patient that has not always produced positive outcomes (think of direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals).

Takeaways: the authors summarized it very well: “a national conversation, guided by the best data and information, aimed at explicit understanding of choices, trade-offs, and expectations, using broader definitions of health and value, is needed.

The current controversies surrounding the Affordable Care Act are a good example. Something had to be done about health insurance reform. Obamacare is a place to start and more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Anything as massive as our healthcare system will always be highly politicized and change will be controversial. Whether we can hope to have a conversation informed by data and information remains to be seen.

Read more:

Soaring Prices, Not Demand, Behind Massive Hike in U.S. Health Spending – US News and World Report.

JAMA Network | JAMA | The Anatomy of Health Care in the United States.

The artificial hip fiasco

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hip_replacement
image via wikipedia.org

Designing medical devices is hard work. Designing artificial joints is even harder. The ongoing artificial hip fiasco in the medical device industry is proof.

Artificial joints such as hips and knees are incredible technologies. They can take people out of wheelchairs and turn them into active adults. The crippling pain and infirmity of arthritis and other degenerative diseases are banished, at least for a while.

The requirements for these high tech medical devices are challenging. They are implants, subjected to full immersion in bodily fluids and subject to all of the stresses and biochemical processes of the human body. Ideally, the implant should last the rest of the patient’s life although that seems to be one of the most challenging requirements.

Implants such as artificial joints that must move may be the most difficult of all to design and to last in the body. Materials selection is particularly challenging. Metal implants must be sufficiently hard and tough to take the loading and repetitive motion of a patient’s joint for years and years. Ceramic implants must be fracture-resistant to impact loads and shocks, say from a jump or a fall. Polymer implants must be low friction but must not break up under mechanical stress or chemical attack. And coatings must not migrate to other parts of the body. Of course, none of the materials in the implants can be toxic.

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be an ideal combination of materials for hip implants. Interestingly as well (and I’m sure of substantial frustration to device engineers), there does not appear to be a reliable in vitro or in vivo model with which to perform wear and life testing. If there were a robust model, none of these implants would have made it to market without major revisions in materials and/or design.

Implant designs have failed mechanically through fracture and friction and more insidiously, have raised the potential for cancer and autoimmune disorders through migration of metals, coatings, and polymers to other areas of the body. In many cases, patients have undergone additional implant surgeries as a result of the failures. And these are not trivial operations.

A report today in Fierce Medical Devices indicated that Johnson & Johnson has settled 7,500 lawsuits for its metal-on-metal hip implants for a whopping $4 billion. That’s an average of $300,000 per implant and is in addition to other lawsuits settled in October. Other lawsuits against J&J are still pending as well as legal exposure outside the U.S. J&J announced recently that it will exit the metal-on-metal and ceramic-on-metal implant markets in 2014. I’m guessing that the legal settlements wiped out any profits made over the years and is probably going to cost untold numbers of jobs.

J&J’s competitors have problems too. According the the Fierce Medical article, Biomet, Stryker, and others are facing similar liability situations with respect to metal-on-metal implants.

The market for these devices is large and increasing. Hip implants are one of the most frequent orthopedic surgeries. As the population of seniors in the U.S. and other developed countries continues to grow while the baby boom generation ages, demand for procedures that maintain active lifestyles will continue to increase.

Takeaways: The onus is on medical device engineers to create valid in vitro and in vivo preclinical models and to test exhaustively before releasing to manufacturing. Engineers and researchers must also identify biomaterials and designs that are truly biocompatible and able to meet the demanding requirements that these implants must satisfy.

Give the track record of implants, engineers and medical device executives can expect increased scrutiny and skepticism from regulatory agencies, investors, physicians, and patients and their families.

Of course, it also means that there is an incredible opportunity awaiting the company or engineer that can solve this intractable issue.

Read more:

Report: J&J settles most metal hip lawsuits in $4B-plus accord – FierceMedicalDevices.

More Artificial Hip Concerns – NYTimes.com.

Renal Denervation – the next big thing?

blood pressure checkIt seems like every big medical device company is working on a technology for renal denervation to treat high blood pressure.

Development and market availability of a therapy for hypertension (high blood pressure) is a big deal. Here are some facts about hypertension from the World Heart Federation:

  • Globally, nearly one billion people have high blood pressure (hypertension); of these, two-thirds are in developing countries.
  • Hypertension is one of the most important causes of premature death worldwide and the problem is growing; in 2025, an estimated 1.56 billion adults will be living with hypertension.
  • Hypertension is the leading cause of cardiovascular disease worldwide.
  • People with hypertension are more likely to develop complications of diabetes.

Some additional facts about hypertension in the USA from the Centers for Disease Control:

  • 67 million American adults (31%) have high blood pressure—that’s 1 in every 3 American adults.
  • 69% of people who have a first heart attack, 77% of people who have a first stroke, and 74% of people with chronic heart failure have high blood pressure. High blood pressure is also a major risk factor for kidney disease.
  • More than 348,000 American deaths in 2009 included high blood pressure as a primary or contributing cause.
  • High blood pressure costs the nation $47.5 billion annually in direct medical expenses and$3.5 billion each year in lost productivity.
  • About half (47%) of people with high blood pressure have their condition under control.

Hypertension is treated currently with drugs of course. According to a report from ADS Reports, the global market for antihypertensive drugs was $29.9 billion in 2010 and is projected to reach $33 billion in 2017. That’s a huge target for interventional therapy.

I wrote about Bellevue, WA-based Kona Medical a couple of weeks ago receiving a $10 million investment specifically earmarked for their market entry into China, obviously one of the biggest potential markets.

Kona recently announced interim results from two ongoing clinical trials. It reported an average systolic blood pressure reduction of 29 mmHg at 6 months in their first study and a three-month drop of 19.4 mmHg in the second study using a dosing pattern that reduced therapy time from 13 to three minutes.

Kona’s results are significant because its therapy is completely noninvasive. It uses high intensity focused ultrasound on the surface of the skin to deliver energy to ablate the renal nerves.

Other companies developing renal denervation technologies include St. Jude Medical, Boston Scientific, and Medtronic. Each has chosen a different energy modality to deliver the therapy.

MedCityNews reports that St. Jude is using a multi-electrode catheter to deliver electrical energy to the renal nerve sites. The company reported results from a clinical study: at 18 months, 77 percent of the 46 patients treated with St. Jude’s technology, the EnligHTN system, had responded to therapy. St. Jude’s system total ablation time is about four minutes, according to a company statement.

The Boston Scientific therapy uses bipolar (electrical) energy to deliver therapy. After 12 months, the company reported a “clinically-meaningful decrease in office systolic blood pressure” in 85 percent of the 139 patients treated. The Boston Scientific therapy requires a brief 30-second treatment time.

Medtronic seems to have a head start in the market. In early 2011, it finalized its purchase of Ardian, a Silicon Valley startup that was working on a novel therapy for hypertension since 2003. The Medtronic RDN system therapy uses radio frequency energy delivered via a catheter to the renal arteries/nerves. Medtronic’s Symplicity renal denervation system has a CE mark and is commercially available outside the U.S. Medtronic has a number of completed and ongoing clinical studies, all of which have resulted in conclusions that the therapy is safe and effective.

Takeaways: New markets are one area where startups can compete on a level playing field with huge, multinational companies. They can be more nimble, take more risks, and can pivot when things don’t go according to plan. In the case of renal denervation, Kona seems to have a decided advantage with its noninvasive technology and treatment. Of course, Medtronic has a years-long head start and we all know the “best” technology doesn’t always prevail, right?

Read more:

Two top medical device companies announce promising renal denervation tech results – MedCity News.

Kona notches solid results for novel renal denervation tech – FierceMedicalDevices.

 

 

In search of a better mousetrap…EHR system, that is

http://www.mddionline.com/sites/www.mddionline.com/files/image/01310/ehrdoc.jpg
image via mddionline.com

There has been enormous emphasis in the past few years on getting physicians to adopt electronic health records (EHRs). The HITECH Act (Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act) part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2008, established financial incentives for medical practices and hospitals to adopt EHRs that met specific “meaningful use” criteria. According to a recent survey, physicians are dissatisfied with their EHRs and are looking to switch.

The HITECH Act was an early effort of the Obama administration to use information technology to begin to rein in out of control healthcare costs by using data to make more informed decisions.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced recently it has exceeded its goal of 50% of doctor offices and 80% of eligible hospitals having electronic health records (EHRs) by the end of 2013.

There are thousands of EHR products from hundreds of vendors: 3721 EHR products for ambulatory care and 1282 EHR products for inpatient care listed on the HealthIT.gov website as certified EHR solutions. Many entered the field opportunistically when it became apparent that large numbers of physicians, medical practices, and hospitals would be purchasing EHRs in response to the HITECH Act incentives.

According to research conducted by EHR software reviewer Software Advice, it appears that many physicians are unhappy with their new EHR systems: 31.2%  of medical providers are replacing their EHRs today, compared to 21.0% in 2012. That’s a 48.6 percent increase. The main reason for replacement? More than 60% of physicians reported dissatisfaction with their current system. There are multiple reasons for their unhappiness: 26% said their EHR lacks key product features while 14% said it was too cumbersome to use and 12% said their current EHR was too costly.

Adopting a new EHR is a big investment in capital and resources. The switching costs are quite high because transitioning to a new system is complicated and time-consuming.

Takeaways: There remains a significant opportunity for an EHR developer to capture revenue and market share given the high levels of dissatisfaction with current solutions. Companies already in the market should reassess their offerings and work with customers to improve usability and user interfaces, to improve connectivity with other systems, and to provide the features that users need. Startups should try to differentiate their products in the same ways.

It all starts with understanding customer requirements.

Read more:

Why Physicians are Ditching Your EHR System | MDDI Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry News Products and Suppliers.

The Impact of the HITECH Act on EHR Implementations IndustryView | 2013.

HITECH Act – the Health Information Technology Act | Policy Researchers & Implementers | HealthIT.gov.