Leslie Saxon: Better tech for better health

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Editor's note: Dr. Leslie Saxon is chief cardiologist at USC's Keck School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Body Computing, an innovation think tank dedicated to wireless health. For more on Saxon, watch "The Next List," Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET on CNN. 

What if tracking your heart rate and blood pressure was as simple as getting your e-mail?

That’s the future Dr. Leslie Saxon imagines at the University of Southern California. She is chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and founded the university’s Center for Body Computing (known as the CBC). Saxon is determined to create digital tools that will allow doctors and patients to monitor and share health data.

“It's almost obscene to think about how information is everywhere now and shared over the most trivial things, yet patients can't get even the data from an implanted device they have in their body. They're locked out,” says Saxon. “After 20 years, I finally understand that just telling the patient what to do in a paternalistic way doesn't result in good outcomes. Patients have to partner with you.”

At the CBC, Saxon spearheaded a unique collaborative system with the university's schools of engineering, business and film, along with USC's athletics department, to research and develop wireless devices and health solutions.

    "The essence of digital health is interdisciplinary connectivity," says Carmen Puliafito, dean of USC's Keck School of Medicine. " And Leslie has been a true pioneer at that."

    “Within digital there’s a lot of ability to integrate different skill sets,” says Saxon, 53. “My brother’s a film producer. My husband’s a sportswriter. So I was always looking for a way to integrate what I did with the things I’m also passionate about.”

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    When she’s not with patients, Saxon researches and develops smartphone applications and wireless sensors that provide personalized medical data in real time. For example, she’s currently working with software engineers from Boston Scientific on a universal programmer tablet that permits direct communication with any implantable pacemaker.

    The device can detect deterioration in heart functions and tell the patient how to adjust their medications. Dr. Saxon says once approved, this device will be an enormous time and money saver.

    “The patient and doctor don't have to go anywhere so it saves millions of dollars, but most importantly it completely changes the game on patient safety and comfort level, allowing continuous care for a patient you’ve made this big investment in,” Saxon says.

    "It’s like having an office visit every day and a complete physical every week. We know their hearts are damaged and have implanted a $30,000 device. Now we can manage them at home. This the first system in history that ... (allows us to) do that in a real-time way.”

    Saxon also has been instrumental in the research for an iPhone app that lets doctors take an electrocardiogram of a patient anywhere in the world. At just $199, the AliveCor is a case that snaps onto the smartphone, with electrodes on the back. The case talks wirelessly to the phone, which then transmits the information to the web. A doctor literally on the other side of the world could diagnose an athlete or a patient instantaneously.

    “What we like to do at our center is to take a beautiful breakthrough technology like the AliveCor and apply it across large segments of the population but try to imagine on it,” says Saxon. “What is the best use case for this for a USC athlete, or a pro athlete, or a cardiologist, and how can we educate the next generation of patients?”

    Saxon, an avid sports fan, devotes much of her research to monitoring athletes. By analyzing devices worn by both college and pro athletes, she can predict injuries, which then helps coaches tweak their training regimen. Ali Khosroshahin, the USC women’s soccer coach, had players wear Saxon’s heart-rate monitors during practices.

    “The data helped us come up with a formula that gives the players a lighter or more intense training load. It’s been hugely beneficial,” says Saxon, who believes this information is easily translatable to the general population. "What I see working with athletes is going to work for any kind of patient, somebody with a heart device, or someone with risk for heart disease. It all applies."

    And Saxon is working with USC’s School of Cinematic Arts to bring health data into automobiles. She and members of the film school recently formed a research alliance with BMW. They're developing a heart-rate sensor within the car’s steering wheel that will check drivers' vital signs as soon as they put the key in the ignition.

    “I've had a long day. I get into my car. I turn it on. I grab the steering wheel. It immediately goes to the right temperature, because I'm warm, I'm tired,” says Saxon, imagining the car. “It then measures my biometrics without me even being aware of it and it plays a song that it knows tends to bring me into a calm zone."

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