Author Archives: David Van Sickle

RWJF Scholar Puts GPS Technology to Work Fighting Asthma

Mar 5, 2012, 1:00 PM, Posted by David Van Sickle

David Van Sickle, PhD, MA, an alumnus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program and founder and CEO of Asthmapolis, has created a new device called a Spiroscout. It is an inhaler with a built-in Global-Positioning System (GPS) that sends a signal with the time and location to a remote server every time a patient uses it. Asthmapolis tracks and analyzes the data and sends regular reports to patients and physicians, along with observations and recommendations.

Last summer, RWJF’s Alumni Network talked with Van Sickle, an epidemiologist and medical anthropologist, and then this month, the RWJF Human Capital Blog followed up with a few more questions. The combined results of those conversations follow:

RWJF Alumni Network (AN): Have you always been working on asthma?

David Van Sickle: My whole career has been focused on asthma. I did my dissertation research on asthma in India and worked at the respiratory center in Arizona during grad school. When I was at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), I was working in outbreak investigations, trying to figure out where and when asthma was happening, so we could better target our public health activities.

AN: How did you get the idea for your company?

Van Sickle: At the national level, we suffer from a lack of data about the day-to-day burden of asthma. When I went to the University of Wisconsin with the RWJF fellowship, and began to look more closely at the clinical management of asthma, I realized that physicians also suffered from a lack of information on how their patients were doing. I thought we could solve these two problems with one new technology that tracked where and when people are using their inhalers, which provides an important signal of how well the disease is being managed.

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My Visit to the White House

Sep 13, 2011, 12:00 PM, Posted by David Van Sickle

David Van Sickle, Ph.D., is a former epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a 2006 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

This past June, I had the honor of being named one of 17 “Champions of Change” by the White House, in recognition of my work marrying emerging technologies to health care.

According to, “The Obama administration established the Champions of Change award to recognize and encourage ‘everyday heroes’ working to better their communities through hard work and creative solutions.” Many of these folks – such as awardee Todd Park, chief technology officer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – now occupy key roles in government where they are sparking new companies and revolutionizing industrial ecosystems in part by using whole new approaches to data.

As readers of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Human Capital Web site may recall, my work to develop a GPS-enabled asthma inhaler caught the attention of the Administration early last year, and I was invited to make a presentation at a Community Health Data Forum sponsored by HHS. The forum was an outgrowth of President Obama’s Community Health Data Initiative, which is focused on making HHS health data available so that software developers and others can put it to innovative and constructive use.

The idea behind the inhaler is to capture valuable data about asthma from daily life, by putting GPS technology to work tracking precisely when and where patients use their inhalers. That’s useful information to patients, because it means they can provide their physicians with the kinds of specifics that generally don’t make it into pen-and-paper logs – often because patients forget to keep track and instead fill them out days or weeks later, in the parking lot of their doctors’ offices, for example! But the device also has public health implications, because when we can identify patterns in asthma incidents, we can sometimes identify and then do something about environmental factors that cause them.

Asthmapolis, the company I formed to bring this to market, is gearing up to manufacture the first commercial version of the sensor and is busy hiring. We're up to six employees now and looking to hire two or three more. Our staff will help educate users and public health officials on the use of the product, design marketing materials, write related apps and more. It’s an exciting time in the life of the company, and it’s been an education moving along the path from idea to prototype to device and eventually to a marketable product. This fall we will launch in major health systems in three states.

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