Tracking disease, transforming health care

Silicon Valley / San Jose Business Journal – by Becky Bergman

When Kevin Montgomery arrived in Ethiopia in March, the Stanford University researcher was saddened and overwhelmed by the thousands of AIDS patients who waited on gurneys lining the corridor of the Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa, the country’s capital city.

“It was sad to see the tremendous number of people waiting to see a doctor,” says Mr. Montgomery. “They were leaning against the walls, waiting for hours, sometimes days to see someone.”

Mr. Montgomery, who works as a computer scientist at Stanford, is the founder and chief executive officer of a new spin-off company, Intelesense Technologies, one of nine firms to come out of the National Biocomputation Center at Stanford University. Based in Hawaii with a research lab at the university, the company deploys wireless sensors globally — in Vietnamese streams, Hawaiian rainforests and Ethiopian villages.

The sensors collect, monitor and transfer data through the air at 14-mile intervals until they reach a base station connected to the Internet. The network can track disease outbreaks from malaria to the avian flu anywhere in the world within a four-hour period, says Mr. Montgomery.

He is part of a collaborative effort with several government agencies and universities, including the University of Hawaii, the Hanoi School of Public Health and the U.S. Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, or TATRC. The partnership is using telecommunications technology to transform Ethiopia’s health care system. The technology also provides wireless communication infrastructure for remote areas.

“One of the complaints we heard from health officials in Ethiopia was how new doctors quit only after a few years in working in a village clinic,” says Mr. Montgomery. “The number one reason has to do with them feeling cut off from the world.”

A promising trend has emerged as the global community becomes increasingly aware of a growing “digital divide” between industrialized and Third World nations, says Eva Harris, associate professor of infectious diseases at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

“A growing number of experts from industrialized nations are working to bring technology to developing countries,” she says, adding that the transfer of technology in engineering and computer science is still lagging. “While many are very interested in developing gadgets, few take that extra step and go out into the field. A lot of the fanciest gadgets just don’t get out.”

Ms. Harris is a MacArthur Fellow whose interests and accomplishments in transferring advanced technology to the developing world spans two decades.

“I knew I had the ability to contribute and be part of the solution in Africa,” says Mr. Montgomery, who first visited the poverty-stricken country in November. “I believe if I didn’t become part of the solution, I would be buying into the problem, and for me, that wasn’t going to work anymore.

“If we just sit in our ivory tower and write our papers, we do a disservice to the world.”

Intelesense Technologies will provide the backbone of a telecommunications system to monitor antiretroviral drug therapies for AIDS patients. The system will replace paper-based handwritten data collection systems such as the 2-foot-wide logbooks that health officials pick up every 90 days from remote villages to track the progress of the disease.

“The logbooks they currently use are huge,” says Mr. Montgomery. “We would ask the community health care worker about a case, and she would start flipping back through this huge, heavy book.”

Health officials say a faster, more efficient data system will increase the number of patients a doctor can see. The new data system will also save lives.

For patients, the new program means they can go to any of the 129 clinics in Ethiopia that will have the technology and a doctor can retrieve information about their last visit, says Mr. Montgomery.
Researchers will also install the system in five hospitals around the country, allowing doctors in remote villages to communicate and share information with health officials in more populated areas.

In addition, hospital universities in the U.S. will be able to access the information as part of their teaching programs for medical students. The handheld units and network base will take about a year to deploy, says Mr. Montgomery.

Funded by TATRC and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, Intelesense Technologies provides the system at cost, he says. The retail price is $2,500.

“In Stanford’s overall strategy for spinning out innovation, Intelesense is one of those success stories,” says Mary Kratz, an informatics expert at the University of Michigan Medical School who is the lead for the TATRC activities in Africa. “It can help solve really difficult global health problems, like AIDS,” says Ms. Kratz in a statement.

Ethiopia is a country that is centuries behind in technological advances and has one of the direst AIDS epidemics in Africa — according to the World Health Organization, more than 2.2 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS. Mr. Montgomery says the challenge was figuring out how to provide health care to sick people in remote areas.

“The population is very, very spread out and resources are scarce,” says Mr. Montgomery. “The roads are not in good condition and the people have to walk everywhere they go.”

Ethiopia, known better for its periodic droughts and famines, uses a 13-month calendar, says Mr. Montgomery. “The country’s tagline is ‘we have 13 months of sunshine,’ so we leveraged that to develop technology that could be solar-powered.”