Abbott CEO Ford at CES Talks Democratizing COVID Testing

Keynote from medical device company that manufacturers at-home COVID tests puts spotlight on ongoing pandemic fight, and convergence of health and technology.

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Editor

January 7, 2022

4 Min Read
red coronavirus floating in dark blue background
oz via Adobe Stock

On Thursday, Abbott CEO and Chairman Robert Ford delivered the first ever keynote by a company from the health care sector at the CES tradeshow in Las Vegas. It was the first year for CES to be held in person since the pandemic began, with some notable changes. The hybrid in-person and virtual event included mandatory proof of vaccination for in-person attendees. There were also late withdrawals of in-person exhibitors such as AMD, Intel, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google as winter saw more cases of infection emerge.

Concerns about the latest variant of COVID also forced the tradeshow to plan to close one day early. That put into perspective the persistence of the pandemic along with the need for testing technology and other resources to better address its spread.

Tech fueling healthcare advances

The presence of Ford as a speaker showed how technology-driven changes in healthcare along with current events shifted some of the tone at CES -- a tradeshow with its roots in consumer gadgets but has since evolved to include startups and enterprise technology.

Ford’s keynote brought discussions on the pandemic front and center again, along with other innovations from the medical device maker such as at-home tests for COVID, rapid tests for concussions, and bio-wearable sensors. “Tech has always fueled new advances in health care,” he said. “New medicines, critical vaccines, new ways to screen and diagnose, a rapid expansion of our understanding of disease. The use of data and AI to better predict illness and better target treatment.”

Abbott has a testing partnership with United Airlines and eMed, Ford said, to improve safer air travel when it comes to the pandemic. The partnership includes the ability for United customers to order BinaxNOW tests to ensure they can travel.

Aaron McMillan, managing director of hospitality and planning at United, and Patrice Harris, CEO of eMed, took the stage to discuss the effort to make international travel available thanks to testing. International travel restrictions in response to the pandemic meant cutting capacity for airlines, McMillan said. “We had to find a way to help our customers return to flying,” he said. “We knew testing was the answer.”

The digital platform from eMed enables on-demand, rapid-testing with proctors who guide users through the experience.

Tech for human-powered health

The linking of health to consumer-focused technologies, Ford said, could deliver on a promise of what he described as human-powered health. He described a future where individuals could have more precise control and greater convenience in care, and proactively detect disease earlier. “Health tech is at an inflection point,” Ford said. “COVID-19 has powerfully underscored the importance of health and the growing value of the technologies that protect and advance it.”

Such a convergence of health and technology has the power to digitize, decentralize, and democratize healthcare, he said.

Leslie Saxon, professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine and the executive director of the Center for Body Computing at the University of Southern California, also took the stage to speak on bio-wearable devices. For example, she said, patients with heart failure who each have an implanted defibrillator that is connected to the internet might see greater longevity.

“Health technologies have the power to gather personalized data with the promise of offering everyone on Earth the power to understand and manage their health in real time,” Saxon said. Continuous health data could provide early warnings of series medical events, she said, as well as help stave off disease and improve healthcare outcomes.

Early warnings in healthcare also extend to the need for testing, which is increasingly vital to eliminate uncertainty in the time of COVID as well as for other conditions. Ford said 70% of medical decisions result from diagnostic tests. “Now you can get that information more easily, more quickly, and in more places than ever before,” he said. “It’s about decentralization.”

That includes the BinaxNOW rapid COVID home test from Abbott and its complimentary app, Ford said. “People have their results in 15 minutes, and they can get proof of their results on their mobile device.” The company expects to manufacture more than 70 million BinaxNOW tests this month, he said.

About the Author(s)

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth

Senior Editor

Joao-Pierre S. Ruth covers tech policy, including ethics, privacy, legislation, and risk; fintech; code strategy; and cloud & edge computing for InformationWeek. He has been a journalist for more than 25 years, reporting on business and technology first in New Jersey, then covering the New York tech startup community, and later as a freelancer for such outlets as TheStreet, Investopedia, and Street Fight. Follow him on Twitter: @jpruth.

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