David Albert HeadshotAliveCor is, in many ways, the posterchild for digital health. Launching just almost five years ago, it was part of the leading edge of what is now a flood of digital health devices & apps.

Dr. David Albert, known to most as Dr. Dave, is the founder and chief medical officer of AliveCor. He has a long history in the medical device industry, with a resume that includes securing his first patent while a medical student at Duke University and serving as the Chief Clinical Scientist of GE’s Cardiology division.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Dave about AliveCor’s past and future, clinical research in digital health, the trend of graduating medical students jumping into the digital health world, and more.

Doing Research in Digital Health

In my review of the AliveCor Mobile ECG a few years ago, one point I made was that there was a lack of data on the real-world use of the device. In response, we got a number of emails, comments, and critiques from folks arguing that asking for that kind of data was simply the mark of a physician stuck in the old and soon-to-be disrupted model of healthcare.

Dr. Dave’s response was very different – he recognized the importance of that data and said it was coming. Since then, I’ve written a number of articles on study after study testing the Mobile ECG – AliveCor delivered. But why bother doing these studies? They were getting all kinds of buzz and investment then. As Dr. Albert put it,

“Don’t forget this is medicine. You’re not going to do it with Google AdWords…you need to prove clinical value. [Clinical research] does slow you down, it’s a challenge. But the world isn’t going to give you a pass…if you want to help patients, then you need to do it.”

He reinforces that point, arguing that it’s the responsibility of physicians and other healthcare professionals to insist on supporting data from digital health companies including AliveCor. Research was part of the AliveCor roadmap from the beginning, a fact he attributes to his own clinical background. Not all digital health companies have taken the same approach and he argues that it’s critical that healthcare professionals demand data, with the aim of making it a market necessity for success.

AliveCor on devicesVision for AliveCor

“We started with just an idea about a device…a vision and focus on ease of use, experience, and cost. Tech was almost backseat to the bigger vision.”

The vision for his device began in the 1990s with another handheld ECG device using a state-of-the-art “palmtop computer” called the Psion Series 3 – basically a precursor to the PDA. Around 2005, a colleague developed a Bluetooth handheld ECG device paired with a Windows Mobile phone that was primarily marketed for research purposes. It wasn’t until the release of the iPhone and the advent of the third-party app that everything lined up to make the vision a reality.

To date, thousands of US cardiologists have bought an AliveCor Mobile ECG. What’s much more striking is the data on the patients who are using it. The average age of patients using the device is in the 60’s; in fact, 60-70 year old patients are the most prevalent age group of users. That fact speaks to the device’s impressive usability, a core part of the original vision and device hallmark when I reviewed it a few years (and few versions) ago.

One fact Dr. Dave is particularly proud of is the fact that the cost of the device has been pushed down. It currently retails for $74.99, which is less than half the cost of the device when it launched in 2012. According to Dr. Dave, that was all part of the original plan – namely to get the device to a price that makes it accessible to almost anyone. And it doesn’t seem like he’s ready to settle here either.

One tip Dr. Dave offers to physicians and healthcare professionals with an idea, who are interested in making the leap, is to find good partners & investors with some experience in this space. Willingness to cut a check shouldn’t be the sole criteria in deciding whether to move forward with an investor or not. As an example, he points out that it was investor partners who pointed out the potential value of the mountains of ECG data that AliveCor is now building (used in a de-identified way). While there are numerous apparent research opportunities there, Dr. Dave wasn’t quite ready to disclose how exactly that data would create business value (i.e. revenue).

Being a physician-turned-entrepreneur

In a recent article on NPR, we learned that a surprising percentage of graduating medical students in the Bay area are forgoing residency and jumping straight to digital health. I asked Dr. Dave about his thoughts on this trend and advice for physician-entrepreneurs. And his response was a bit unexpected.

“If they think four years of medical school will prepare them to change medicine, they are wrong. If I was [them], I would go finish residency…go learn more about the problems you want to fix before you set out to do it.”

He’s not surprised by this trend however, pointing out that the healthcare system isn’t exactly a well-oiled machine. Or as he puts it, “It’s like a submarine at too low a depth…you can hear the creaks and it’s getting ready to implode.”

From his perspective, that’s what’s driving many clinicians, not just Bay area medical students, out of medicine. He points out that his experience was slightly different. Getting both medical and biomedical engineering education at Duke, he had secured his first patent and licensed it. By the time he made the leap to start his own company a few years later, he already had years of experience working in a variety of medical research settings and a few more patents/licenses under his belt.

For healthcare entrepreneurs, Dr. Dave left us with this parting advice, “If you want to be an entrepreneur, that’s great – jump in. But realize it’s a risk, there’s potential failure…it’s ok to keep learning and find the right opportunity. Don’t worry if you miss one, there will be more…there will be great change [in medicine] and that creates great opportunity.”