News From the Wireless Health Summit: Topol Plans a Medical School for Techies, the X Prize Plans a Challenge for Trekkies, & FDA Official Shows ‘Telepresence’

Xconomy San Diego — 

Some big names were on the agenda yesterday at the 2011 Convergence Summit, which is being held in a downtown San Diego hotel under the auspices of the nonprofit Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance. A couple of the speakers actually delivered some interesting news:

—Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) chairman and CEO Paul Jacobs made the first unexpected announcement from the stage during a keynote talk yesterday morning, when he revealed the San Diego wireless giant has been collaborating with the X Prize Foundation to establish guidelines for a $10 million Tricorder X Prize. The underlying concept of the $10 million challenge is to develop a rapid, portable, and low-cost diagnostic tool capable of diagnosing patients better or equal to a panel of board-certified physicians. It’s an idea right out of Star Trek, which I’ve explained in more detail here.

—Following Jacobs onstage was Eric Topol, a cardiologist and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, who revealed he plans to start a new medical school in San Diego sometime next year. Topol didn’t provide many details during a conversation with Qualcomm executive Don Jones, who has been driving the company’s multi-pronged foray into wireless health technologies. But he vented somewhat, describing the medical establishment as “sclerotic and fossilized” and “very resistant to change.”

Topol, who founded the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine in 2002 (four years before he joined Scripps in San Diego), is clearly looking to do things differently. He said only a few medical schools are using iPads and are teaching students how to use the Vscan, a handheld ultrasound imaging device that General Electric introduced in 2009. “Medical schools today offer nothing about wireless technologies or genomics,” said Topol, who indicated the medical school he is planning would emphasize the adoption of the latest technologies. While Topol sounded hopeful, he acknowledged that the process of starting a new school is “really difficult” and requires going through years of approval.

—One speaker did not make news in the usual sense. A talk by Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein, associate director at the FDA Center for Devices & Radiological Health was billed in the program as “a view into the agency’s oversight of wireless health devices, applications, and services.” But Bernstein didn’t provide much insight into the agency’s slow regulatory process or reasoning for asserting regulatory authority over a broad spectrum of emerging technologies.

Bernstein reminded the audience, which included more than 200 technology entrepreneurs and healthcare executives, that it was 20 years before the cell phone played a meaningful role in a physician’s daily activities and 22 years before surgeons began to use Thomas Edison’s lightbulb to illuminate their operating rooms. In other words, have patience restless wireless health entrepreneurs. It takes decades to adopt new technologies in healthcare.

WLSA CEO Rob McCray and InTouch Health Robot with the FDA's Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein

Bernstein’s presentation itself was the real news, and something of a distraction. The FDA official did not appear personally on stage, but instead used a medical telepresence robot from Santa Barbara, CA-based InTouch Health. Bernstein operated the RP-7 robot remotely from the East Coast, and his visage was limited to the robot’s 15-inch display screen. I was of two minds after Bernstein ended his talk and the robot rolled offstage and down a ramp—the audience watching apprehensively. While it was disappointing that Bernstein didn’t appear personally, it was nevertheless encouraging to see a top FDA official use remote telepresence technology to deliver his presentation without a hitch. And it also meant the agency didn’t have to pay for his trip.

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