When Medtronic Inc. decided to develop a remote patient management system in 2001, the medical electronics giant needed an engineer who could play the role of technology maestro, harmoniously blending software, hardware and RF communications in a system that could make a patient's heart talk to the Internet.
Luckily, the company's technical ranks included John Van Danacker, a veteran electronics engineer who started his career building command-and-control systems for battleships. Van Danacker assumed the role of point man on the project, helping the company deliver the first heart monitoring system capable of remotely alerting cardiologists to life-threatening problems without the aid of the patient.
“When we embarked on this project, we needed a huge amount of technology to deliver information from an implantable device to the Internet,” says Warren Watson, vice president of implantable product development for Medtronic. “John was the point person. He decided what needed to be done. He decided how we defined the technical issues. He led the creation of a system that in retrospect looks obvious.”
Indeed, Medtronic's wireless CareLink network looks far less daunting today than it did in 2001. In 2001, however, no one in the medical industry had done anything like it. The system's main component — a transceiver box roughly the size of a clock radio — needed to communicate wirelessly with defibrillators inside the body of cardiac patients. Moreover, the system needed to be able to “talk” to the implantable device with no assistance from the patient, send information via a telephone modem to the Internet and then make the information accessible and understandable to cardiologists looking at a PC screen anywhere on earth. It was a daunting task made harder by the fact no one had previously blazed the trail, least of all, Van Danacker.
“When I started in patient management, I had never done any development of Internet-based systems,” Danacker recalls today. “I had never been responsible for hardware development or operations of IT systems. But over six years, I got immersed in a lot of different areas.”
Van Danacker's quick immersion has paid dividends for Medtronic. Starting in August 2001, he spearheaded the company's effort to build a secure infrastructure so clinicians could gain easy access to patient data. He also headed development of tabletop transceivers that relay information from the patients' hearts to the Internet.
Moreover, Van Danacker helped Medtronic navigate the maddeningly complex regulatory maze as the company sought FDA approval for the technology. Van Danacker credits the quick device development and speedy FDA approval to the company's willingness to use other industries as models. To develop a secure patient data infrastructure, Medtronic followed in the footsteps of financial experts who have long-standing resumes in creating secure databases.
“We had to leverage our knowledge from elsewhere,” says Van Danacker, whose own knowledge led him to be nominated for Design News' prestigious Engineer of the Year award. “We learned whatever we could from others and then applied it to our specific domain.”
Medtronic executives credit Van Danacker's leadership for successfully taking its engineering team into a new arena.
“John has the ability to see the system-level picture and then, in the next minute, drill down to the communications-level technology that's needed to deliver on the promises,” Watson says. “He can go from 40,000 feet to 100 feet in a millisecond.”
By virtually every measure, Van Danacker's efforts in remote patient management have been a success. More than 250,000 patients affiliated with 2,400 cardiology clinics in 20 countries now use CareLink services.
Many say the medical electronics' giant would have been hard-pressed to do it without Van Danacker's big-picture outlook and his nuts-and-bolts mentality. “When you're doing a project like this, there are so many questions about how things should work,” Watson says. “John could keep all the technical details in his head and never lose sight of the big vision.”