Conversation With: Physician/Inventor Dr. David Albert On The ‘Uberfication’ Of Healthcare

Cardiologist, researcher, and inventor Dr. David Albert.
Cardiologist, researcher, and inventor Dr. David Albert.

Dr. David Albert is a prolific inventor, researcher, and cardiologist. You may know the Oklahoma native from a story in 2012, when a physician with his AliveCor ECG software used it to help detect that a man on a flight was having a heart attack. The doctor got the pilot to ground the flight and helped him be transported to a nearby emergency facility.

The man lived.

Albert has sold one of his four companies to GE, most recently serving as the company’s chief clinical scientist for cardiology, a position he walked away from in 2004 to—you guessed it—start another company. Albert received his first patent in 1983, giving him a long vision of what healthcare innovation has looked like over the years. He’ll be speaking at Health Wildcatter’s downtown office at 211 N. Ervay next Wednesday for its third Pulse event. D Healthcare Daily is the media sponsor. Head here for information on how to register.

Here, we talk the past, present, and future of healthcare innovation. It has been edited for length and clarity.

D Healthcare Daily: So how does a cardiologist turn into an inventor and entrepreneur?

Dr. David Albert: I began my career back as a medical student and engineering graduate student at Duke University. Back in the late 70s, early 1980s. as a student, I developed and patented a couple of inventions, still as a student. In fact I got my first patent in October of 1983, so I celebrated my 31st anniversary of my first patent last October.

I was able to license those. Once I graduated I went back to the University of Oklahoma, which Oklahoma is my home, and began training there. I continued to invent as an engineer/physician, so I worked extensively on cardiovascular inventions.

I developed an invention while in training and nobody wanted to license it. But I thought it was a great idea. Having licensed other products before, I decided I would have to start a company, and I did. That was in 1987. So I left academic medicine in 1987 to start a company, and the rest is history. I guess I never looked back – AliveCor is a smartphone ECG solution and we’ve sold many tens of thousands, basically every major medical center in the United States uses them today. And that’s my fourth company; I sold my last company, DataCritical, to GE. So I was as chief scientist of GE Cardiology in Milwaukee and I decided I had all the big company I could take, and I think I have another company in me, and ultimately started AliveCor in 2011 after really inventing this device in 2010.

DHCD: So you’ve been involved in healthcare innovation for decades. Can you comment on the environment now—there seems to be more opportunities for training and meeting investors and guidance. Would you agree?

Albert: It is significantly different than when I first started companies. We now have an infrastructure around the country: Startup Health, Rock Health, Health Wildcatters, the Cleveland Clinic has their own incubator. Literally every institution, not just Stanford, is attempting to spin out startups and is encouraging startups and incubating startups. There’s an infrastructure that’s never existed before.

Part of it is that these companies being spun up and incubated are by and large different than companies that have been started in the past. You’ve got cloud services you can start health IT; everyone knows the billions of dollars poured into EMRs (electronic medical records) and health information technology over the last 10 years, it’s tremendous. And it’s been painful for doctors and other organizations as they deal with HIPAA and EMRs and health information exchanges, but that’s opened up opportunities. These healthcare incubators, like Hubert’s like Rock Health, like Startup Health, that have academic medicine and corporations going in looking to accelerate the innovation.

Now, biotech startups take a lot of money so they’re not easily incubated by Health Wildcatters or Startup Health. They take tremendous amounts of capital to even get started, let alone take it through clinical trials, which can take years.

You hear the term digital health; there are some tsunamis that are moving through healthcare and not without considerable pain and angst. One of them is, yeah, you have the ACA, it has changed one thing: that people are going be personally responsible. Everybody understands that employers keep pushing your deductibles up and pushing your copays up and they’re desperate to control their own healthcare costs. The only way to do that is to engage the employees, to engage people. Now we have individuals going into the insurance market going into the exchanges buying healthcare for themselves. People never used to ask what that bypass surgery costs, what that pacemaker, what that mastectomy costs. Or whether the costs at Baylor are different than Presby or Parkland. Nobody asked those questions, but those questions are going to be asked. Price shopping, bargain hunting are going to be injected.

Now, do you think Uber has had an impact on the taxi business? That’s a $40 billion company. The ‘Uberification’ of healthcare is coming. As we baby boomers reach 65 and hit Medicare, Medicare has got to be controlled. So all these dynamics of personal responsibility are making people have to be engaged.

So now you’ve got wearables! And you’ve got insurance companies saying if you use this, you’ll get a deduction. Employers are saying if you join a health program, if you lose weight, if you stop smoking, you’ll get a deduction. They’re looking at prevention.

I graduated from Duke Medical School in 1981. I had not one minute of nutrition education. My son is a third year med student at OU and he had six weeks. You are what you eat. We know this now. It’s not controversial. We know that saturated fats are to be avoided, we know what’s bad, we know your weight and your BMI, we know all these things and you’re going to have these tools and they’ll be consumer driven and interactive.

This opens opportunities for these types of digital health companies that are going to be incubated by people like Hubert and Health Wildcatters, or Startup Health or Rock Health. That’s the change. It’s really that medicine is evolving out of necessity and I don’t think you’ll run into anyone in the healthcare system—there are a lot of doctors in healthcare administration who don’t want it to change, but it’s going to change. It’s like EMRs, we’re not going back to paper. Get over it. The doctor can retire and moan and groan, but we’re not going back to paper. We’re just not.

These are the dynamics that create the opportunities that have enabled the existence and growth of healthcare incubators because healthcare is changing. The Internet, smartphones, wearables, insurance, personal responsibility; these are all the drivers that are enabling people like Hubert to foster new ventures. That’s completely different than it was 30 years ago when I started.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.