Skip to main content

Sustainable Health Forum addresses critical challenges in health care

ASU Professor Micheal Birt
July 11, 2014

Project HoneyBee launched to develop wearable sensors that improve patient outcomes while reducing costs

National and local academic, industry and clinical health care leaders gathered recently under an idyllic, late-spring Arizona sky at the Desert Botanical Garden for the invitation-only Forum for Sustainable Health, hosted by Arizona State University’s Center for Sustainable Health.

With the desert in full bloom, the annual forum served to formally kick off the Center for Sustainable Health’s new “Project HoneyBee” which will harness the explosive growth in new wearable biosensors for clinical applications through a data validation approach. A new forum report summarizes their discussion.

Center for Sustainable Health director Michael Birt framed the opening discussion by outlining the confluence of factors, he dubbed “The Triple X” of health care (aging, chronic disease and rising health care costs), which led to the development of Project HoneyBee:

• an historical, unprecedented change in demographics, where 15 percent of the world’s population will be over the age of 60-more than at any other time in human history

• a dramatic change in world health, from a society transitioning to a primary focus on treating infectious disease to chronic illness (e.g. chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, lung disease, and stroke, account for more than half of all health care costs and two-thirds of all U.S. deaths)

• skyrocketing health care costs which now represent almost 1 out of every 5 dollars spent in the U.S., with political uncertainty on how to deal with the costs.

“Do we have the political will and health care support to handle an aging society?” asked Birt. “We need to do more with less money.” 

Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, senior vice president of ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, noted that, despite the nation’s urgency for its health care challenge, there is no national research lab type of thrust within the health care sector.

“We have an opportunity to develop a virtual national lab to find innovative solutions to health and wellness in collaboration with local partners such as Mayo Clinic and Banner Health, and globalize the solutions,” said Panchanathan. “Healthcare providers, researchers, educators, clinicians, patients, and industry partners all need to be part of this conversation to envision, design and develop these solutions.”

Project HoneyBee aims to bring people together to develop solutions to real clinical issues by tapping into ASU’s vast network of partners and interdisciplinary resources with an opportunity to play a leadership role to respond to global health care issues that also benefit the health of Arizonans.

“We can be local, but we can be global at the same time,” said Birt.

On the technology front, the recent explosive growth in the wearable sensor market is being led by a plethora of wrist-worn gadgets. This market is estimated to grow into a $12 billion industry within the next five years. Tethered to cell phones, these devices offer a ubiquitous, affordable, scalable response to the shifting demographic, financial and epidemiological factors critical to U.S. health care costs and patient outcomes.

But the task of will not be easy. Sustainable Health chief scientist and Nobel Laureate Leland “Lee” Hartwell, underscored the current technological challenges of the wearable sensors market.

“Within 10 years, every patient will be monitored by devices,” said Hartwell. “While there are lots of new discoveries, the translation into the clinic for utility is nearly zero. We need to create a process to make this technology reliable and useful, with new capabilities, to find out the best application that will have the greatest impact on medicine, and give patients control of their own health.”

A key ASU partner, Mayo Clinic, through its social media efforts, has been a clinical leader in acknowledging the power and usefulness of online community engagement. It also provides further proof of the shifting patient-first mentality, where healthcare consumers are increasingly driving healthcare change.

“Put the patient first and the rest will fall into place,” said Mayo Clinic physician James Levine, a leader in the wearable biosensor domain. Levine developed a “magic underwear” for monitoring patients at risk for coronary heart disease. In 1995, the initial prototype had a unit cost of $7,000. But after 17 years, costs are now down to $30 per unit, and the technology finally received regulatory approval in 2012 to be trialed in the clinic.

The central challenge of Project HoneyBee is to replicate this success on a wider and more rapid scale to make wearable sensors a routine part of medical care. To do so will require a highly collaborative effort from all aspects of health care and the necessary venture capital and industrial partners to fuel the innovation engine.

Lee Hartwell aptly summarized these challenges: “We’ve got device people, we’ve got data people. We’ve got clinical people, we’ve got business people, and I think we’ve got our bases covered. The question is whether we can build a process. And to do that, it’s going to take resources.”

Nevertheless, Forum for Sustainable Health participants emerged from the meeting with high expectations and some notable buzz on the opportunity to identify key wearable sensor technology to develop and validate for the clinic.

“It was a lively discussion that in the end, zeroed in on the amazing potential for consumer based, open and interoperable biosensor technologies that will one day help transform health and healthcare delivery,” said Bill Crounse, senior director, Worldwide Health at Microsoft. 

To get involved with the "busy bees" of Project HoneyBee and learn more about the cross-pollination among different partners, a number of online links are available:

• To learn more about the ASU Biodesign Institute Center for Sustainable Health, visit

• For regular updates and unique perspectives from innovative leaders, follow the Project HoneyBee Chronicles

• The Microsoft’s Health Blog represents thoughts, comments, news and reflections about health care IT from worldwide health senior director Bill Crounse, on how information technology can improve healthcare delivery and services around the world.

Media source:

Michael Birt,
director, Center for Sustainable Health
The Biodesign Institute at ASU
(480) 965-2462

Media contact: