Grasso takes high tech to extreme heights

On the topic of technology, Vincent Grasso says embrace the machine – it benefits patients, takes health care to underserved areas and complements osteopathic medicine’s holistic approach.

S. Vincent Grasso, D.O.’91, has taken telemedicine to the most remote place on earth. As a postdoctoral associate in the Yale University School of Medicine’s surgery department and project manager in the NASA Yale Commercial Space Center for Medical Informatics and Technology Applications, he led a team of Yale researchers, MIT engineers and U.S. Defense Department personnel in using new technologies to monitor the endurance, physiologic status and the effects of extreme exertion, low oxygen and the cold on four Mount Everest climbers.

Vincent Grasso, at right, shows a cardiac device used to monitor a Mount Everest climber in 1998.

As a Yale publication described, “vest-like biopacks transmitted viral data from the slopes of the 29,028-foot mountain to the base camp at 17,000 feet, relaying the information to Yale by satellite phone and the Internet.” Grasso and his base camp colleagues also set up a video connection so they could talk face to face with a physician team back at Yale-New Haven Hospital and Walter Reed Medical Center.

“The Everest expedition team proved that one could remotely monitor the clinical and environmental state of each climber and remain in contact to diagnose, advise and assist within a 24/7 window,” he says.

The only problem with the cutting-edge technology: It was too cutting-edge at the time, May 1998. While the expedition helped NASA and its sponsors advance medical-monitoring systems for astronauts, it failed to spur rapid adoption of commercial applications of telemedicine among earth-bound humans.

“If the technology is too early, it’s more frustrating than if you have nothing,” Grasso says.

The world has changed. The federal government is pushing doctors, clinics and hospitals to have electronic health records for all patients before 2015. Some are embracing technology similar to the monitoring and transmitting devices Grasso used more than a decade ago on Mount Everest.

Among these adopters and innovators, Grasso is hyper-high tech, a Renaissance combination of surgeon, medical informatics expert, software architect, business analyst, entrepreneur, certified project management professional and adjunct professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. In July, he was appointed founding trustee for New Jersey’s regional health information exchange, NJ-HIGHT ECH, part of a national framework funded by the stimulus legislation to educate and assist care providers in sharing information securely.

Grasso’s ability to straddle clinical care, management and technology equips him to show how new technologies can result in financial and clinical benefits.

“I’m working on ways to bring value to the health care delivery community and prove that a new technology-rich model for enhancing return on investment exists – to meet the existing cost structure or beat it, and in tandem deliver better clinical outcomes,” he says. “That’s the holy grail.”

Grasso offers a laparoscopic training symposium in Bolivia.

Grasso has implemented technology in a number of health care efforts. Through the company he founded in 1999, Technology Integrations for Medical Applications (TIMA), he and his colleagues have trained physicians in war-ravaged Serbia and are enabling doctors and visiting nurses to make “virtual” house calls in New York and New Jersey. Last year, his team landed a five-year, $2.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to monitor and connect women of color with HIV/AIDS with clinics and hospitals around the country.

“The grant’s technology platform consists of a grid-based centralized and exceedingly secure solution operating within top-tier data centers, facilitating ease of use and access,” Grasso explains. “By giving participating clinics and doctors secure access to the solution, we empower a community of distributed care-givers with one record source.

“Doctors don’t have to make a capital investment in redundant systems to access the information. They can make decisions quickly with their work environments for timely intervention,” he adds. “That decreases decision-time related costs and improves clinical outcomes.”

Grasso is driven to utilize technology to serve the underserved. In 1991, as a medical student and Jesuit missionary volunteer in Peru’s cholera epidemic that year, he founded the nonprofit organization AYUDAMOS – Spanish for “we help” – to alleviate suffering in poor countries by coordinating donations of medical supplies, application of telecommunication technology and the expertise of physicians, engineers, scientists and other professionals. AYUDAMOS has trained surgeons in Bolivia and treated landmine victims in Cambodia, among other activities.

Closer to home, the organization’s Adopt-a-Clinic program is working with technology vendors and local non-governmental organizations to raise funds to add more clinics to the HIV/AIDS grant project.

“Our consortium approach allows for an efficient, effective means of offering services to the disadvantaged at a fraction of the traditional cost,” he says.

Vincent Grasso educates students at a Ugandan medical school.

Grasso is now working with Panasonic and Cywee via one of his start-up companies, Medical Motion Monitoring and Metrics (M4), to create technology-enhanced braces and bands that, when worn by patients, will enable their health care providers to monitor their home-based physical therapy. He’s planning more medical missions. And he’s working with a team to return to Mount Everest next year to test a new generation of monitoring and medical information systems on climbers.

These technologies, he says, create opportunities for D.O.s to show the value of osteopathic medicine and improve their patients’ lives.

“With all that’s going on in health care, some think it’s not a good time to get into medicine,” Grasso says. “But my pitch to students is they are very lucky to be healers. And if you work really hard and hustle, look at all the cool things you can do.”

The Economist reported in April that the big chipmaker Intel is investing in devices to track the health of elderly patients, such as “magic carpets” that sense erratic movements and can thus predict a fall.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project states that 61 percent of adults say they look online for health information; among these “e-patients,” about 20 percent use Internet and social networking sites to talk with medical experts and other patients.

The think tank California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF) estimates that two-thirds of American physicians have smart phones and more than a third use Epocrates, a program for mobiles and laptops that provides instant information on treatment recommendations and more. The software will soon be able to access electronic health records via mobiles – which CHCF believes could be the “killer application” of wireless health.

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