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Can the defense industry help improve health care?

John Evans, Corporate Vice President, Business Innovation, Lockheed MartinWhy is the military technology company Lockheed Martin presenting at a health-care conference? To answer that perplexing question, I dropped in on the Healthcare Innovation Summit at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. This annual event brings together a high-power group to talk about the latest ideas set to transform the business and practice of medicine.

John Evans, PhD, MBA, a Lockheed Martin vice president, focuses on creating new business for the massive corporation. The company is "fundamentally a government partner," according to Evans, explaining that it provides products and services to help the government achieve its goals for the country.

Some national goals could be threatened by ballooning health-care costs, though: Health care costs in the U.S. have doubled three times since 1980, rising from $253 billion to $2.3 trillion in 2008, and the government is struggling to keep up. So Lockheed Martin turned its attention to the problem for the same reason it builds fighter jets and naval combat ships.

"It's a national security threat," said Evans. "It crowds out expenditures for other national priorities."

The same principles used to design complex weapons can be applied to reinventing the intensive care unit, argued Evans. When Lockheed Martin designs a warship or a spacecraft, the mission or purpose of the new technology comes first. Every element contained in the complicated collection of technology gets created fresh, so that the whole system works together to meet that mission.

"No one has ever really designed the ICU from scratch, from a clean sheet of paper," said Evans.

As a result, the current state-of-the art ICU is merely a collection of devices - all designed separately and not intended to work together. This can lead to mistakes, Evans said. For instance, merely raising or lowering the patient's bed can prevent monitors from detecting life threatening changes in blood pressure. Patients have died because the bed, pumps that deliver medicine, and patient monitors don't talk to one another.

Evans presented a video game-like simulation where the new integrated ICU the company is designing can be tested. It's a safe proving ground where physicians and hospital staff can put the new technology through its paces, without having a patient's life hang in the balance. Think of it as war games for emergency medicine.

Photo by Keith Rozendal

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