USC cardiology chief Saxon: ‘People are using their phones for everything except their own health. We aim to change that.’

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As cardiology chief of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, Dr. Leslie Saxon is spearheading a successful mobile health innovation center called the Center for Body Computing. Founded in 2010, the coalition works with engineers, device companies and thought leaders to develop mobile health software and apps.

Saxon’s ultimate goal is to create a single platform that is the "epicenter of wireless health." The CBC has developed working relationships with device companies and innovators including Medtronic (NYSE:MDT), Boston Scientific (NYSE:BSX) and St. Jude Medical (NYSE:STJ). She also hosts an annual Body Computing Conference, which brings together cross-disciplinary leaders from medicine, design, gaming and pharmaceuticals.

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The goal of all this collaboration is a “Facebook for healthcare," where patients, doctors and manufacturers share data in a dynamic online space. With more than 5 billion people wielding mobile devices, Saxon believes it’s time to re-think the way healthcare is consumed. MassDevice.com caught up with Saxon to discuss her vision for the future of mHealth.

MassDevice: How does the Center for Body Computing find fresh new ideas to develop?

LS: I always go to people that are doing new things, like someone who has a center for something cool, like a concussion sensor or a bat speed sensor. We troll a lot on the Internet and make cold calls to get members. We help our members imagine their technology and help them understand the market. Sometimes we co-develop ideas. Sometimes CBC develops its own apps through the USC Engineering School. Sometimes we collaborate with inventors. Sometimes inventors/programmers/companies come to us with a fully developed product and just want us to beta-test it. We are also working with gaming companies. We’ve got a lot of big grants in the pipeline that the university hasn’t disclosed yet. It’s important to remember that we’re a non-profit, which limits the kinds of interactions we can have with some partners. 

MassDevice: What’s in the pipeline right now that’s piqued your interest?

LS: I can tell you about my favorite device – right here on the back of my iPhone. It’s an ECG sensor and I use it 100s of times a week. I discovered it on YouTube and contacted the inventor. Now it’s a product being developed by AliveCor. Another great app I helped develop is called MyQuitCoach, which is a smoking cessation app.

MassDevice: What is your long-term agenda for the CBC?

LS: Our aim is to create products and environments that meet patient’s needs and improve productivity. I want to get a health agenda on the board. A lot of people are using their phones as almost "life channels" right now. People are using their phones for everything except their own health. We aim to change that.

MassDevice: What’s behind your shift from exclusively clinical work to the world of mHealth?*

Leslie Saxon: I really wanted to reach a greater group of patients than I had been in my cardiology practice. I started exploring wireless technology and realized the potential in medical care. This is a really fascinating field, with a lot of great people in it. In addition, wireless companies are some of the most successful and profitable in the world. This is where it seemed there was a lot of potential to make connections across a large group of people.

MassDevice: Tell us about your work with medical device manufacturers.

LS: I’ve worked with all 3 in the cardiology space — Medtronic, Boston Scientific, and St. Jude — I’ve consulted in a number of ways. I’ve helped with clinical research projects to organize the clinical trials, and I’ve helped with pre-trial device development. I’m working right now with Boston Scientific. I’m on their medical advisory board and I’m chair of the Altitude project. 

MassDevice: What was your reaction to the recall of St. Jude’s Riata defibrillator lead?

LS: I think in general, these companies take their work and safety very seriously. These devices are very sophisticated and in general highly reliable. They’re asked to do a lot, and because of their increased complexity, the advisories being issued about their overall performance rates are super high. 

MassDevice: What is the goal with your new website, Every Heart Beat?

LS: We launched the site to announce our initiative, but right now it’s just a landing page. We’re hoping to create a digital platform on which people can tell their own health story. We’re specifically talking about heart rate at this point. For now, it’s not about a personalized health record and not about therapeutic relationships — it’s about people putting their own data on a platform and then we’ll be able to tell individual stories and larger trends. A lot of what we’re building is already out there with patient networking sites. That’s why we’re focusing on mobile devices. The mobile device is key, because millions of people have the power to enter data, even without great healthcare access or wireless access. 

Mass Device: Where have you seen the most success in the mobile health space?

LS: One space we’ve seen a great integration of mobile devices and health is in sports — how to take biometric data and enhance a workout experience for athletes. Currently, we’re running some clinical trials and space studies with the USC football team. We’re also working with professional teams using wireless monitors. Of concern to me is understanding which players might be at risk for advanced cardiac disease because that is common in some athletes. 

MassDevice: It makes sense that athletes or patients with acute diseases want to volunteer their health information and join a network. Do you really think that the general population will be willing to opt in to this kind of online medical network?

LS: I think people want to volunteer their data because people are inherently curious. We’ve certainly seen this in the popularity of athletic applications – there is a huge population of people tracking their athletic performance. I think that if people felt they could learn something about their health or be actively preventing disease, then they would opt into a social network.

*Correction, July 17, 2012: Due to an editor’s error, this article originally stated that Saxon no longer sees patients. Return to the corrected sentence.