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Lifetime Industry Bonds Benefited Healthcare Technology

April 9, 2013
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Have changes to the healthcare environment impacted vendor-provider relationships that forged innovation?

Recently I ran into an old acquaintance from my GE days.  Leon Janssen held a number of sales, training, and management positions in GE during his 37 year career.  Upon his retirement, Leon was a guiding force in creating a publication on the history of GE Healthcare.  I contributed a chapter on PACS, and I have the publication, “Envision A history of the GE healthcare business,” 2009, Meadow Brook Farm Publishing (http://mbfpublishing.com/about.html).

In the process of catching up, Leon mentioned that he participated in an annual event that I recall from my GE days – a ski trip to Vail, CO, started by then GM Walt Robb.  Walt and a number of the GE management team used to get together annually along with a number of radiology staff from a number of sites involved in GE research for a few days of discussions and skiing.  To my surprise, a number of that group is still getting together, as evidenced in the accompanying picture!  Shown are Rich Stevens, a marketing executive at GE, Walt Robb, former GM of GE’s healthcare business, and Senior VP of GE’s Corporate Research and Development Center, Al LeBlang, a program management executive at GE, and Alan Williams, MD, a former practicing radiologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, WI.

In the early days of CT and MRI technology, Walt was instrumental in establishing research relationships with a number of prestigious facilities.  I most vividly remember the relationships with the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), and the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW).  GE had major investigational research programs at both for CT.  The original CT prototype went to UCSF in March, 1976.  During the 

day it was used for clinical procedures, and at night it was used for research, particularly cardiac research on dogs.  The late Dr. Alex Margulis was then chairman of radiology, and Walt formed a strong bond with Dr. Margulis that resulted in years of valuable clinical research. 

My point in reminiscing is that it amazes me that these relationships have endured for over thirty-plus years!  I attribute a lot of GE’s early success in CT and MRI to the bonds between GE management and academic radiology leadership.  GE gained valuable insight into clinical use, and providers gained from the early adoption of leading edge technology.  Without these bonds I question whether the technology would have progressed as thoroughly or quickly. 

I question whether in today’s evolved healthcare environment there are as many strong bonds between vendor management and academic leaders.  In many instances it was the entrepreneurial risk taking management that believed in clinical relationships and research as a means for technology innovation.  Case in point: many CT vendors had demonstrated that a CT scanner could hold the x-ray source and detector stationary and move the patient through the beam, resulting in an image similar to a plane film   x-ray.  No one perceived any use for such an application, until collaboration between GE’s CT advanced engineering team and the neuroradiologists at the Medical College of Wisconsin perceived that if the images were correctly registered, they could be used to precisely position the patient for axial scans of the vertebral discs. This became known as GE’s ScoutView capability, revolutionized the use of CT in diagnosing spine disease, and is a routine procedure today. 

Sure, maybe there is more pressure for profitability in an ever more complex healthcare delivery environment, and perhaps certain government regulations preclude such relationships, but maybe the industry could take a lesson from its past and forge greater bonds between vendors and providers to promote innovation.  Maybe I’m too far removed now to see it, but I think other motivations have gotten in the way of the benefits once derived from these relationships.  To my former GE and academic colleagues, thanks for the innovation resulting from these relationships, and happy skiing for many years to come!

If you have other examples of the benefits of vendor-provider partnerships, both past and current, please feel free to share them!

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