Stories: Voices from the frontline

Dr. Elliott

Dr. Michael Elliott, M.D.

Neurologist Michael Elliott, M.D., is spearheading an innovative approach to caring for patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the Swedish ALS Clinic. Living with such a complex and challenging disease is overwhelming but Dr. Elliott is pairing technology with a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to ensure patients, their families and their care teams are all on the same page.

This year, the clinic’s exam rooms received a significant technology upgrade with the installation of large, wall-mounted touchscreens from Microsoft called Surface Hubs, thanks to a generous donor. We caught up with Dr. Elliott to find out how the interactive screens have improved patient care so far, the ongoing role of technology at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute and how philanthropy makes it all possible.

How do Surface Hubs help patients at the ALS Clinic?

It has a significant impact. Early on in the diagnostic process, it can be confusing for patients. What part of my nervous system is affected? How does that cause my symptoms? Having a full audio/visual experience to have that conversation with patients is just so much better. It’s very important to communicate visually with patients so they can see neuroanatomy, where the problem is and which symptoms relate to which part of the nervous system. The more people understand about their disease, the more productive and efficient their care is.

We also recently figured out how to import MRIs, circle areas of interest and draw on the images to help patients better understand what they’re seeing. The longer we work with these devices, the more layers of use we’ll discover.

And in terms of research, we have several clinical trials in which patients can participate. I'm used to handing over a packet and trying to describe the trials, but now I can show patients a slideshow about what options we have, who's eligible and what we're trying to achieve. All the details are out in front of us both. It’s nice to be able to have a clearer conversation with patients, outlining what they need to know and what their options are.

Patients with ALS often have a series of appointments with multiple specialists on the same day. How can this technology help with caregiver-to-caregiver communication?

When we go in to see patients, we use the whiteboard function to write down what their concerns are and how they are doing on certain tests. All of that is immediately up on the board and there for the next provider to come in and say, "Okay, this is where this person is at with their respiratory status. These are the questions that they've got. This is what's already been discussed." They can come in and have their part of the visit without duplicating efforts, which gives the patient more time to have their concerns addressed.

These exam rooms were designed for in-person visits, but do they also have virtual capabilities?

Soon, we should be able to video conference during appointments with patients. Family members often want to hear how their loved one is doing or have questions, and this will allow us to include more of a patient’s support system in the conversation, wherever they are. We could do that a little bit before, but the Surface Hubs will enhance our ability to do that.

We’re also working on setting up virtual visits for when patients don’t need to come in for physical exams. The advantage with the large exam rooms and screens is that we can include multiple caregivers at the same time for a more productive conversation. That's hard to do when you're in your office in front of a desktop.

As the Chief of Neurology at SNI, what other new technologies are you excited about?

Neurosurgeon Stephen Monteith, M.D., is looking to bring another Microsoft tool, called the HoloLens, into his work. It’s a very sophisticated headset that can superimpose a patient’s brain imaging onto the surgical field to help a surgeon understand the shape and location of an aneurism or the edges of a tumor. This is a form of augmented reality. It’s something that could potentially enhance his work as a surgeon and give a huge benefit to patients. That's one area that we're exploring.

We’ve had a lot of success collaborating with Microsoft, specifically their Enable Group, which is developing technology for people with disabilities. From 2016 until 2019, we worked together to test out a system for driving a wheelchair with eye movements and published a trial in the journal Muscle & Nerve. Now this technology is starting to be used by patients with ALS in their everyday life. We went from an idea to showing that this patient population can safely and capably use that technology.

Why is it important to bring these leading-edge technologies to Swedish?

We have a really unique opportunity here in the Pacific Northwest. We are literally in the backyard of some of the largest tech companies in the country. I think there's an infinite number of projects and opportunities that we could bring to improve our patients’ life. The more we can collaborate, the better we can find real-life applications for the cool things they are developing.

How can philanthropy help?

Getting new equipment and technology into health care is really only possible with philanthropic support. It's making a lot of these collaborations possible. Without support from donors, we would have a hard time making some of these collaborations possible. Giving really enhances the life and the experience of people facing the challenges of a disease like ALS.

To learn more about how technology is creating health care of the future and how you can help us use it to improve the life of more patients, contact the Swedish Foundation at [email protected] or 206-386-2738.