Published 5:01 a.m. ET Jun. 29, 2021
Steven Peabody had a vision for a tablet-sized object that could collect key medical information remotely from patients.
About a decade ago, the Zionsville entrepreneur and engineer brought the first iteration of his plan to life in a product about the size of an iPad. But telemedicine had a limited market at the time and this technology didn’t wow the industry. Patients had to plug in multiple other peripheral devices to measure vital signs, a set up that apparently proved too cumbersome.
The device hit the market and flopped.
Peabody, however, did not give up.
“We just had a feeling that remote patient monitoring telehealth would be something that would happen eventually,” Peabody said. “It was all a matter of time.”
That time arrived earlier this month, when VoCare, a company Peabody started based out of a workshop and home office in his barn, received Food and Drug Administration approval for Vitals360, an all-in-one handheld version of that initial product.
Peabody’s timing was fortunate. The past 18 months have been good ones for the field of telemedicine. Last March COVID-19 shuttered outpatient doctor’s offices and patients and providers embarked on video visits. Before the pandemic, telehealth centered mostly on connecting rural patients with health care providers hundreds of miles away or saving the most feeble patients a trip to the doctor.
Now there’s a much larger potential base of customers.
During the pandemic, telemedicine proved its worth, said Dr. Ben Park, chief executive officer of VoCare, the company that makes the Vitals360. Before recently joining VoCare, Park headed up American Health Network, a large physician practice.
Pre-pandemic, Park said, the practice conducted about 500 telehealth visits a month. One month into the pandemic that number soared to 1,500 a day. Even after restrictions loosened and health care providers resumed non-urgent in-person visits, telehealth visits remain a viable option for many for whom physically going to the doctor can be a challenge.
But video visits alone had their drawbacks, said Dr. Joseph Kvedar, chairman of the board of the American Telemedicine Association and a professor at Harvard Medical School. Peabody’s device and others like it can remedy that.
“As much as we celebrated video connections — and it was convenient for patients — it’s also very limiting because it’s just a video conversation and when you go to your doctor there’s a lot more information exchanged,” Kvedar said. “In general remote patient monitoring is giving more quality information to a health care provider who can help the patient make decisions about their care.”
So the market is growing rapidly for devices like the Vitals360, which collects the type of information that might be measured during a doctor’s visit. VoCare will market it to companies that specialize in telehealth, such as health systems, telehealth companies or insurers, Park said.
Vitals360 measures key vital signs
The gizmo can take a person’s temperature, blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate, oxygen level, and even perform an electrocardiogram. It also has a camera and can sync with a scale to weigh a person. The device can also measure a person’s glucose level, but that use has yet to receive Food and Drug Administration approval.
All the user needs do is stick a finger in the appointed spot on the device and wait about half a minute for the reading. The device then shares those numbers with the person’s health care provider.
During the pandemic, health care providers realized that many chronic illnesses could be successfully managed at home, if only they had a way to monitor vital signs, Park said.
“Without those, just looking at someone on a video did not give the same capability that you got from having vitals to go with that,” Park said.
How the device will be used
When Peabody set out to create a telemedicine device, he thought of something that home health services could use to keep a virtual eye on patients. Over his career, Peabody has developed 300 to 400 products, from orthopedic devices to caps for propane tanks.
The first generation device required the user to plug in different peripheral devices for each vital sign measured. Not only did the concept prove unwieldy but low reimbursement for remote monitoring meant few expressed interest.
After a few thousand of the devices were produced, VoCare shelved the product.
“We considered that a failure,” he said. “The demand wasn’t there for any of this stuff.”
But Peabody kept tweaking his creation, striving to put everything in one handheld place, rather than having peripheral devices that users would have to maneuver and which could lead to supply chain nightmares.
The first generation took about three years to develop; the newer version was more complex and was about five years in the making. The device costs between $500 to $800, depending on how it’s loaded and how many the health care companies that use it purchase.
Vitals360 has unique features
While the sleek Vitals360 device that resulted enters a crowded field, it does have some features that set it apart from many other products out there, such as a built-in video feature and ease of use for patients, Kvedar said.
“The patient doesn’t have to do a whole lot…, which is important, because we have learned that the more we ask patients to do, that’s just another barrier to getting information,” Kvedar said. “If something is very easy to use and enables easy connectivity … that will certainly help patient adoption.”
Vitals360 has multiple uses, though one of its most common could be to prevent patients with certain illnesses from deteriorating to the point where they require hospitalization. In a similar vein, hospitals might also use the system to prevent at-risk patients being discharged from being readmitted. Medicare penalizes hospitals for readmissions that occur within a month after discharge.
Consider a patient with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung condition that makes breathing difficult, using the Vitals360 device. The patient may have been recently hospitalized or his or her health care provider may just want to monitor progress.
If the device shows that the person’s respiratory rate has increased and pulse has oxygen level decreased, that can signal to the doctor the disease has worsened, Park said, prompting the health care provider to recommend a change in medication or decide an in-person visit is necessary.
Vitals360 can also function as a so-called point of care device, where a provider such as a nurse uses it to collect information on patients going from room to room. For a physician like Park, the 10-year journey to develop today’s Vitals360 was well worth it. “We ended up with the ideal device,” he said.
Contact IndyStar reporter Shari Rudavsky at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter: @srudavsky.