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West Wireless takes medicine in new direction

Year-old West Wireless Health Institute on Torrey Pines Mesa is pioneering new wireless technologies to achieve lower-cost health care.

“The institute is right on the convergence of telecom and medical health,” said Don Casey, the company’s new chief executive officer. “The principal focus is going to be how do we take patients who are high-risk or potentially high-risk and focus on changing how they’re treated and managed?”

Known as WWHI, it is among those firms on the cusp of the transformation of medicine via digital innovation. That transformation involves wireless mobile digital devices, noninvasive disposable sensors worn on the body that can continuously track everything from heart rhythm, blood pressure and respiratory rate to blood sugar levels and brain waves.

West Wireless is a true hybrid: part company, part foundation and part research organization. It almost has to be.

“For us to accelerate development of low-cost health solutions starting with wireless, that’s going to mean dabbling in a lot of different areas,” Casey said.

Founded in March 2009 with a $45 million gift from the Gary and Mary West Foundation, West Wireless, which now inhabits all three floors of the building at 10350 N. Torrey Pines Road, started out with just three employees. It now has 25 engineers and clinicians working collaboratively.

“The institute really is the first of its kind to bridge engineering and medical with a focus on wireless technology,” said Michele Guthrie, West’s vice president for communications and external relations. “The goal is really to begin that collaboration at the ground floor.”

What West is attempting to do, said its chief medical and science officer, Dr. Joe Smith, is to fundamentally change the way medical treatment is delivered.

“There’s something wrong with the way we’re delivering care when we look at 75 percent of every health care dollar being spent in chronic health care — expensive encounters of sick people with hospitals and physicians — when we ought to have continuous care models to meet chronic-care conditions,” he said.

The health care bill recently passed by the Obama administration is hastening change and transformation in the medical industry, as adding more patients will put more pressure on finding new and innovative ways to treat maladies while saving costs.

“We need new forms of technological innovation, not just to make individuals with medical conditions a little bit better, but do so in a way that is sustainable for the health care system,” said Smith. “In a large system you want chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease that are consuming health care dollars and burdening patients managed carefully.”

To do that, said Smith, requires technical know-how and implementation.

“You need reliable measures of disease activity and need to put them together in a way that makes people better and decreases the cost of the health care system,” he explained.

Jason Anderson, vice president of business development for the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., an organization whose mission is to strengthen San Diego’s diverse economy to compete in the global marketplace, said West’s contributions will be integral to maintaining San Diego’s regional economic health.

A healthy economy, he said, depends on diverse, high-wage, high-growth industry clusters — biotech, telecom, software development and the new clean-tech.

“Those industry sectors are really making up our innovation economy, employing more than 250,000 in construction, legal and professional services,” Anderson said. “What we see West Wireless bringing to our community is another component that will help drive our economy.”

Anderson, noting that the health care debate is all about the best way to deliver better and more affordable health care, said “West Wireless is leading that front, delivering better health-care outcomes at a lesser cost.”

Bruce Bigelow, editor of Xconomy San Diego, an online business news startup focusing on technological innovation, said that “entrepreneurs and investors are all looking for new opportunities and the combination of wireless technologies with health care represents this sort of green field opportunity that hasn’t been developed. That’s why West Wireless Institute is so important,” he added.

Casey said the new wireless medical technologies West is developing is for a newer, decentralized mode of independent health care.

“What that means is, rather than pulling people into a central location like a hospital or a doctor’s office to get all their health care, we provide the right people with the right treatment at the appropriate time where they are,” he said.