ECGs ready in a heartbeat

PHOTO: ECGs ready in a heartbeat

A home-grown company has patented an invention that makes it far easier to address one of the most important aspects of health - ensuring our hearts are healthy.

Doctors use electrocardiograms (ECGs) to diagnose heart difficulties and other serious problems in patients.

But these machines are expensive and they may not be available at all clinics.

This means a patient sometimes needs to wait hours before reaching a hospital to have his heart's electrical activity read.

And by then, the problem may have passed.

"In many cases, the discomfort or symptoms are transient, hence they may not be there by the time the patient sees the doctor," said Mr Eric Loh, chief executive of EPI Mobile Health Solutions.

The firm tackles this problem head on with its portable, mobile device that provides ECG recording "on the go" for patients.

EPI's device, known as EPI Mini, can fit into a patient's pocket and it detects the electrical impulses of his heart just like a regular ECG machine.

If the patient feels a pain in his chest area, all he has to do is touch the metal sensors of the device, which is connected to his own mobile phone wirelessly via Bluetooth.

His ECG reading will then be sent to medical technicians working round-the-clock at EPI, who will advise the patient if there is anything abnormal.

"We'll be able to tell what the patient's ECG is like, and the patient will know if he should be going to a doctor for further tests," said Mr Loh.

The business runs on a monthly subscription model.

At the start, patients pay $199 for six months of subscription and the device. After that, it costs $20 a month to have EPI's medical technicians read your ECG whenever you send it in.

Mr Loh says the cost is affordable, considering that each ECG at a hospital will cost $15 to $20.

The firm was founded in 2008 by Dr Michael Lim, a cardiologist. It soon came up with a first-generation device, called EPI Life, which was a phone that could also record ECGs.

Mr Loh joined the company in 2011 and it then developed and launched a second-generation device - EPI Mini - which just records ECGs and can be used with the patient's existing phone.

The company also changed its name, from Ephone International to EPI Mobile Health Solutions, to reflect the nature of its business more accurately. Mr Loh said the EPI Mini device plays on EPI's strength as a medical technology company.

EPI's shareholders include Dr Lim - who remains chairman - and some corporate and strategic investors such as a Taiwanese semiconductor company.

It now has 30 staff members in Singapore and a joint venture in Indonesia, which is poised to bring in more revenue than Singapore due to the difference in population size.

Mr Loh wants to grow the firm more in Indonesia, and expand into Europe and the United States.

"Who can be my customer? Everyone who has a beating heart can be," he said.

He said the authorities in countries such as Singapore are placing greater emphasis on preventive care and early-stage treatment rather than treating a patient only when he is in the emergency room.

As a result, he hopes that the device and service will be used widely - not just by patients who know they have heart problems.

"Even serious athletes can have some discomfort in their chest when they exercise. They may ask themselves if they are merely not fit enough or if there is another problem," he said.

As with many technology firms, intellectual property protection plays a big role for EPI, which works closely with the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, the agency in charge of this area.

The company's key patents are on the EPI devices and backend systems, and there is also a ring-fence of patents on related technologies to protect the market share.

The patents on the products still have about 17 years to run, and Mr Loh said his company will apply for more intellectual property protection as it expands and continues to develop new solutions for mobile health.

"The patents ensure that my technology is not easily replicated," he said.

EPI is working on new products which will also be protected by patents when complete.

By the end of the year, Mr Loh hopes to have a new product and service focused on addressing respiratory issues.

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