Bringing Health Care into the Digital Age
One MBA works to provide digital X-rays to low-resource areas
By Emerald Morrow
Even with recent health care reform, the debate rages on within the U.S. government. In recent years and months it has sent politicians on endless tirades about the direction it should go, leaving some with the impression that bureaucratic red tape makes serious changes in health care nearly impossible.
Ivy Walker would disagree. She is CEO of World Health Imaging, Telemedicine and Informatics Alliance (WHITIA), a global, nonprofit organization dedicated to working with medical providers in low-resource areas to improve the quality of primary health care in the United States and around the world. Chicago-based WHITIA currently is working in Guatemala, South Africa, and in its own hometown, with a partnership in Haiti and visions of expanding throughout the United States and other sites worldwide.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in community health from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Walker is ready to dive headfirst into the warring world of health care.
Improving heath, one digital X-ray at a time
WHITIA reports that nearly 4 billion people in developing countries have limited or no access to basic diagnostic medical imaging, including chest and extremity X-rays. The problem also hits close to home, where, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 43 million Americans lack health insurance and, consequently, cannot afford X-rays. WHITIA also reports an estimated 60 percent of medical diagnoses require X-ray analysis, and “lack of this capacity [hinders] a physician’s ability to properly diagnose medical conditions, resulting in prolonged illness and disability for patients.”
One of the most innovative and groundbreaking developments that comes from WHITIA is the development of “Remi-d,” a self-contained, digital chest X-ray system. The device makes it possible for chest X-rays and screenings to be conducted in less than one day. It has not yet been approved by the FDA, and there’s still more development that needs to take place, but Walker says she hopes to see the device on the market in 2011. “Nobody else has this kind of device,” she says. “We think it’s the answer to the question, ‘How do you help to screen large populations for tuberculosis?’”
Right now, WHITIA partners with X-ray equipment manufacturers and installs digital X-ray systems in selected sites to strengthen the sites’ health systems. Walker says one X-ray system can serve 50,000 patients, and when an X-ray system is put into place, it impacts the entire health system. One of WHITIA’s partner clinics, Salud y Bienestar in Guatemala City, Guatemala, is a municipal clinic that provides medical services to about 25,000 patients and their families. “It serves primarily municipal workers and street children. So with one installation there, we’re helping 25,000 people,” says Walker. And on the other side of the globe, in South Africa, the population WHITIA serves is closer to 60,000.
Here in the United States, Walker is leading WHITIA through a demonstration project with Alivio Medical Center, a Federally Qualified Health Center in the Pilsen area of Chicago’s lower west side that provides the Latino community with cost-effective, quality health care. “Alivio is like a mini-hospital. [It has] everything from primary care, to OB-GYN, to dentistry, to a pharmacy,” says Walker. “It provides medical services to about 26,000 low-income and immigrant individuals and their families [and has] about 90,000 patient encounters every year.”
WHITIA is equipping Alivio with digital X-ray and teleradiology services and looks to demonstrate the reduced costs associated with eliminating referrals to local emergency rooms for X-rays. Walker explains the process of getting an X-ray through a community health center as cumbersome and expensive, because community heath centers often do not have the necessary X-ray equipment and must send patients to a local hospital emergency room where they typically wait hours to be seen, and even longer to get a diagnosis.
Jumping the hurdle of nonprofit sustainability
Walker hopes the demonstration project at Alivio will attract sustainable sources of funding from various philanthropic organizations, and especially from the government. “We target community health care centers in the United States, and the government is a major source of funding for Federally Qualified Health Centers,” she says. “With the Affordable Care Act that President Obama signed in March of this year, community health centers are going to see an influx of patients because they tend to serve as the medical home for low-income and minority populations.” Walker estimates that over the next five years, there will be 20 million new patients in centers across the country.
On a global level, WHITIA is working to garner the attention of organizations (such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example) that are funding specific disease issues like tuberculosis, another area of focus for WHITIA.
“Tuberculosis is a major global threat because it’s an airborne disease, it’s easily spread, and one person who is infected with tuberculosis will infect up to 10 new people each year until [he or she is] treated for the disease,” says Walker. “So what you’re seeing is a global growth in tuberculosis, not only outside the United States, but inside as well. One of the ways to combat the growth of tuberculosis is through screening, and one of the key ways to screen is through digital X-ray.”
Echoing the sentiments of everyone from bigwig economists to the one-man-band entrepreneur, Walker expresses her deep concern over the state of the economy and the impact it’s having on businesses worldwide. “For a business, be it a profit or not-for-profit, there are a lot of challenges to gaining momentum to securing funding,” she says. Small ventures like WHITIA are just as vulnerable to the cash and capital crunch that hit big businesses.
A perfect fit
Walker’s bachelor’s degree in community heath and her MBA have poised her for catapulting WHITIA toward success. She says her MBA exposed her to a multitude of areas like finance, marketing, operations and technology, which she’s had to use in order to understand how to build WHITIA’s business model.
WHITIA was founded in 2007 by a group of renowned engineering professors at Northwestern University, and Walker says it had been in an exploratory phase prior to her coming on board in 2009. WHITIA found her through one of its board members, and she joined the organization because of its global nature, its position as a social venture and its stake in health care. “It straddles the entrepreneurial aspects that I’ve been working with over the years with a mission of giving back to low-resource areas,” she says. “Health care is very complex and is in need of some innovation around the way care is delivered so costs can be brought down.”
When Walker joined WHITIA, one of the first tasks she was charged with was determining a viable and sustainable way to operate the business. “There was an initial business model when the organization was set up, but then there’s the reality of what can you actually do,” she says. “Having gone through MBA training provided a lot of the tools and framework I needed in order to figure out what makes the most sense.”
WHITIA board member Matt Glucksberg says he is beyond impressed with what Walker has been able to accomplish during the short time she’s been with the organization. “She’s someone who is interpreting and trying to understand everything that goes into this very complicated project,” he explains. “Like any startup, that vision has to evolve, and she has to be at the center of it.”
Glucksberg, who also is a professor of biomedical engineering and chairperson of the biomedical engineering department at Northwestern University, says Walker has been working extremely hard in every aspect. “She’s putting together a nonprofit that is using new business models that is essentially a business model. She’s trying to invent a new way of doing R&D and distribution and making it sustainable.”
Telehealth: Coming to a mobile device near you
Fully operational since only 2009, WHITIA has lofty goals for the next few years. In addition to introducing the Remi-d device to the market, Walker would like to see WHITIA expand more into the telehealth and mobile health markets. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, telehealth is “the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration.” Telehealth typically uses technologies such as video conferencing, streaming media, wireless communications and the Internet to monitor health.
Few may believe it, and the prediction certainly is a radical one, but Walker says there are estimates that 80 percent of physician visits will be performed via telehealth methods within the next 10 years. “In a developing country, it’s a little more critical in nature because telehealth could be the only way that patients are able to see a physician,” she says. “Having a telemedicine setup is the way that a patient can go and be examined by a physician [who is] a couple hundred miles away.”
For more information about WHITIA and its mission, visit www.whitia.org.