Recently, National Public Radio (NPR) announced that Catherine Wong, a 17 year old New Jersey high school junior, won its Joe’s Big Idea competition with an mHealth innovation.

The competition is a project of one of NPR Science Correspondent, Joe Palca. It focuses on examining where big ideas arise from and how something moves from an idea to a discovery.

The current competition – “My Big Idea to Change the World” Contest – is geared towards 13 to 25 year old innovators. Finalists get their videos placed on NPR’s website and winners get advice from a leader in their field of innovation who provides advice on how to make the idea become a reality. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Catherine’s idea focused on addressing the unique health care needs of poor countries.  In particular, she was concerned that many developing countries lack the technology to diagnose heart disease because of the expense of this technology. So, she borrowed some equipment from a physics teacher and used electronic equipment that can be purchased over the counter to develop a mobile ECG that can transmit data via a cell phone to a health professional. The device connects to a cell phone using Bluetooth technology.

She’s already leaps and bounds ahead of most innovators because she actually has a tangible product created.  Innovator Eric Topol, cardiologist and Director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, reviewed the innovation video and called prototype, “Just the kind of technology that ‘flattens the Earth’ for better medical care,” according to NPR.  This was not her first mHealth invention.  She’s also created a stethoscope that can transmit data through a cell phone.

A video description of the device is below.

What about the competition?

What’s not clear from the information provided by NPR and Catherine is how this device stacks up against current competition in this arena.  Currently, there are devices that provide offer mobile ECG’s.  Earlier this year, the FDA approved Smartheart, a handheld battery powered 12 lead ECG and rhythm strip device with Bluetooth connection.

The device transmits data in real time to a suitable Bluetooth communication device which can then forward the information to a remote location and a certified medical professional who interprets the results. The manufacturer of the device, SHL Telemedicine intends for consumers to use the device. The device is slated to cost $500 and include a data analysis service that is likely to cost under $20 will be available in the fall of 2012.

Is more innovation needed?

Another innovative step for both Catherine and SHL would be not only transmission to physicians but interpretation of the ECG for consumers and health care professionals that lack the ability to read ECG’s.

Although the interpretation of an ECG can require expert analysis, some ECG’s can easily be assessed with software.  Quick assessments that are interpreted into language that patients can understand (i.e. “you are having  a heart attack – seek help!”) would go a long way towards truly empowering patients and helping non-physician health professionals (who are more common in poorer, rural areas of developing and developed countries) assist these patients.

Bright future for impressive high school student

Hopefully, Catherine’s device will be patented and actually marketed to clinics in her target market – developing countries – for a fair price. She’s dedicated to making the device “smaller, cheaper, and more durable” according to NPR.

This would be a great way to fund her college career which is clearly going to be promising. We look forward to more great inventions by Catherine – an inspiration to all who have great ideas but have yet to share them with the world.  Congratulations Catherine!  Keep up the great work!