Where would you rather work: a sexy company like Apple—or in healthcare IT?
Pranam Ben, an Orlando-based entrepreneur, wants to erode the distinction. Ben is the founder of The Garage, named for the birthplace of many a Silicon Valley company, has the look of a groovy Bay Area accelerator (Ben calls it a "hub for innovation"). And yet at The Garage, Ben and his small team are working on what might at first blush seem like decidedly unsexy problems: IT headaches in hospitals and doctor’s offices.
The Garage’s first product, Engage, was recently acquired by a large Texas healthcare company, Anthelio. Engage is meant to channel the frustration many patients (and practitioners) feel in that limbo-like space, the doctor’s waiting room. It’s an app that patients can download on their mobile devices; that app then contains about 15 sub-apps offering interactive content, healthcare videos, health-related games, and—crucially—the ability to fill out survey forms and sign consent forms digitally.
If widely adopted, it could save patients the tedium of repeatedly filling out the same information again and again. And it could serve as a valuable pre-examination means of communication between doctor and patient, since the doctor’s office can send personalized messages through the device. Ben got the idea when he traveled through New York's JFK airport and saw the wild popularity of the roughly 130 installed iPads there, which offer travelers the opportunity to browse the web, check their flight status, and order food.
The next product The Garage developed, Air, is a Microsoft Kinect-based platform for patient safety in operating rooms. Ben says that to this day in America, roughly 50 times per week something embarrassingly avoidable goes wrong in surgeries: doctors operate on the wrong body part, on the wrong site of the body, or they accidentally sew up the patient leaving something behind, like an instrument or bit of sponge. Settlements follow; the victims are compensated—but the errors shouldn’t happen to begin with, says Ben.
Air works simply; a Kinect goes in the corner of the OR and the doctor can talk or gesture to interface with it and call up "real-time patient and surgical information" on any display she likes. To ensure operation on the correct body part, a human avatar will pop up with the appropriate site highlighted. Forward-thinking surgeons and surgical nurses already advocate for what’s called a "time-out" pre-surgery—a brief meeting in which the patient’s identity and procedure is confirmed: "basically a medical audit," says Ben. But why not extend the time-out through the procedure itself, with that information continually beamed to a screen that all in the OR can see? Air offers a continuous "visual time-out," says Ben.
Air also enables the surgeon to dictate notes immediately following the surgery, and to store medical information in the cloud. The product, which launched 7 months ago on a small scale in two medical centers in Florida, is now more widely available, with hospital systems in California and Tennessee now coming on board. Ben says he believes Air will be shown to greatly reduce "wrong-side" and "wrong-site" surgeries, but acknowledges that he’s about a year away from having the data he needs to approach a body like the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services or the Joint Commission: Accreditation, Health Care, Certification—each of whose approval could represent a ticket to the medical big leagues.
The third major product The Garage is working on is called Mamba; it would be something like a medical app store for Google Glass, the wearable device Google has said is already gaining favor with some surgeons. Ben says his team has hopes to develop 40 apps or more, but has zeroed in on three ideas for now: "Ask Mamba" would be a search engine for healthcare information; "My Messages" would allow communication between Glass users, and "Patient Lookup" would enable doctors to access patient data on the device. With Mamba, The Garage aims to be something like a Rovio for healthcare. (Instead of Angry Birds, you’d have happy doctors).
Though much coverage of healthcare in America is lately focused on controlling ballooning costs, Ben says his innovations play a role in that: "I think every product we’re developing has a direct impact on cost-savings," he says. A bold claim, but it stands to reason that fewer lawsuits and smoother workflow would achieve just that, even if it involved new software and hardware costs.
And why has Ben ended up in Orlando, a land better known for its affiliation with Mickey Mouse than Steve Jobs? Ben landed there in 2005 on a job assignment, and likes the climate. And with retirement communities ringing the city, there’s no shortage of demand for healthcare—and healthcare innovation. Apple and Google recently acquired startups from the region, and perhaps someday central Florida will become known as a hub of innovation that Ben would like it to be, with The Garage one of its important spokes. "For me, the future of The Garage is to be a global brand for healthcare IT," says Ben.