Friday, November 16 , 2018, 12:35 pm | Fair 67º


InTouch Health Giving Surgeons a Remote Presence

Robotics technology gives doctors the upper hand, especially with stroke treatment in which time is critical

In September 2001, two surgeons in New York City removed the gall bladder of a female patient. As surgeries go, it was mostly routine — except that the woman was in France at the time!

InTouch Health founder and CEO Yulun Wang and the company's signature robot, which allows a surgeon to diagnose and treat patients anywhere and anytime.
InTouch Health founder and CEO Yulun Wang and the company’s signature robot, which allows a surgeon to diagnose and treat patients anywhere and anytime. (Nathaniel Thompson photo)

It was the world’s first transatlantic surgery, and the man who helped pioneer the technology that made it possible is Yulun Wang, founder and CEO of InTouch Health of Goleta.

Wang originally started a company called Computer Motion in 1989; Computer Motion was responsible for the mind-blowing robotics involved in the 2001 surgical procedure. After Computer Motion went public and merged with Intuitive Surgical in 2002, Wang immediately founded InTouch Health, and began working on another revolutionary technology known as Remote Presence.

Remote Presence is the future of patient care, according to Wang. It removes the time and distance barriers that have traditionally limited hospital patients from receiving the proper care, by combining three core technologies: robotics, Internet and wireless.

Wang likens it to the teleportation system in the Star Trek series.

“It’s like when Scotty beamed Bones in to treat a patient across the galaxy,” Wang quipped to Noozhawk. “We’re beaming somebody across to another location via a robotic avatar, and that robotic avatar is connected to the actual physician using the Internet and wireless.”

Essentially, a robot is placed in a patient’s room, and then a remote link is established with a specialist anywhere in the world. Through the use of a joystick, the physician can control the robot’s movements, including a full range-of-motion head, fitted with a hi-definition camera. It even has a stethoscope on the back, so one can listen to a heart beat from thousands of miles away. Remote Presence allows physicians to diagnose and treat patients anywhere, anytime, without ever having to leave their home office — which allows for enormous savings in health-care costs.

“Health care has a lot of challenges,” Wang said. “One of the biggest challenges is just getting the right care to the right place at the right time. The bottom line is if you can do that, you can greatly improve health care in all dimensions; you can improve in quality, you can improve in accessibility, you can lower costs. You can do all the things we’re trying to do right now.”

The largest application for this type of technology currently is in the treatment of patients who experience unscheduled acute events that require specialty care, most notably stroke victims. According to Wang, stroke is the third-leading cause of death and the first-leading cause of disability in the country, yet only 2 percent to 8 percent of patients are treated properly. He explains that this is because a large percentage of them are not treated by a specialist, such as a neurologist, since often times it is cost prohibitive for a specialist to travel to certain locations.

“Some of the treatments for taking care of a stroke patient have to be given within three hours of the onset of stroke,” Wang said. “The phrase is ‘time is brain.’

“The bottom line is a stroke is the blockage or a bursting of a vessel in your brain, and if you don’t take care of it really quickly, your brain starts dying. So if you can get the right treatment within three hours, it’s as significant as changing an outcome that would have resulted in death, to complete recovery. It’s quite remarkable.”

This telling fact is one of the reasons that Remote Presence is used right here in Santa Barbara, by the neuroscience specialists at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. Wang says that more than 300 hospitals on six continents are currently taking advantage of Remote Presence, with another 100 on order.

While Wang began InTouch Health through some initial seed-funding of his own, much of the subsequent capital was raised through a few local residents, including two whose names are familiar to many Santa Barbarans: Virgil Elings and Michael Towbes. After that, the booming company went to venture capital. Since its inception, InTouch has raised around $40 million in capital. This includes a recent announcement of a $10 million financing round led by Beringea, the largest venture capital firm in Michigan, and Galen Partners, a leading health-care private equity firm based in Stamford, Conn.

Wang received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering specializing in robotics from UCSB, and taught at the university for a few years before starting his first company. He has more than 40 published articles and more than 70 patents in the area of robotics and computers, and he has appeared on the Today Show, CNN and in numerous other televised interviews throughout his career.

Now in its eighth year of operations, InTouch Health, 90 Castilian Drive, Suite 200, shows no signs of slowing down. In 2008, it ranked No. 39 on Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500 of the fastest-growing technology companies in North America; the same year, it ranked 289th on Inc. Magazine’s Inc. 500 fastest-growing companies in America. Wang is currently working on several new products, including a Remote Presence robot that can operate inside ambulances.

As far as Wang is concerned, there must be a critical shift in the paradigm of health care in the United States, and InTouch Health will continue to work and innovate to see that it happens.

“The direction we’re headed is that health-care delivery has to fundamentally change,” he said. “Because the trend lines of the health-care industry as a whole are unsustainable. Care expenses are going up like crazy, and more and more people are uninsured because of it.

“It’s becoming more and more problematic, instead of less, so what we need are technologies that enable better, more ubiquitous care at lower costs. And that’s what this does.”

— Kevin McFadden is a Noozhawk contributor.

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