Redefining Workplace Wellness

Summery

Rick Heller, the President of Wello Inc., delves into their groundbreaking strategy for workplace wellness, with a primary emphasis on halting the spread of infections. He provides valuable perspectives drawn from his evolution as an engineer venturing into healthcare, underlining the pivotal role of measurement in health advancements. Wello’s cutting-edge solutions, such as Wello Station X and Sky Wello, harness sophisticated technology to oversee temperature levels and thwart spreading illnesses such as Ebola and COVID-19. Heller underscores the critical nature of precise temperature surveillance in detecting contagious individuals and deploying impactful preventive protocols within workplaces.

Key Moments

Workplace Wellness Transformation

  • Rik Heller discusses the evolution of workplace wellness, emphasizing the importance of consistency and innovation.
  • He introduces Wello’s mission to combat hospital-acquired infections through innovative technology.

Journey from Engineering to Healthcare

  • Rik Heller shares his transition from engineering to healthcare, driven by a passion for health and academic disciplines.
  • He reflects on the role of measurement in shaping his approach to projects and understanding epidemiology.

Impact of Temperature Measurement in Healthcare

  • Heller highlights the significance of temperature measurement in healthcare, particularly in preventing hospital-acquired infections.
  • He discusses the development of technologies like Sky Wello to monitor temperature in hospital environments.

Leveraging Technology to Combat Infections

  • Heller explores the role of technology, specifically temperature monitoring, in identifying and preventing the spread of infections.
  • He emphasizes the importance of early detection and the challenges in implementing effective healthcare technologies.

AI-Powered Solutions for Workplace Health

  • Heller introduces Wello’s AI algorithm integrated with temperature monitoring stations to identify potentially contagious individuals.
  • He discusses the effectiveness of targeted interventions, such as mask mandates for high-risk individuals, in reducing disease burden in the workplace.

Transcript

Bryce 

Welcome to the Digital Health Transformers, a podcast series where we explore the dynamic world of healthcare innovation one conversation at a time. I’m your host, Bryce Barger, and today we have an awe-inspiring guest at the forefront of transforming the healthcare landscape. Today, our guest is someone who has worked in the workplace wellness for more than a decade, has extensive experience in this space.

He is Rick Heller, currently the president of Wello. Rick founded Wello with the mission of stopping the spread of life-threatening infections. His vision and knowledge in this space has led to the development of the innovative product of Wello, Wello Station X, which we will go over today.

Rick also holds various patents and product licenses, including automatic test equipment, indoor location systems, and temperature logging across facilities. He has also pioneered one of the first RFID products while working as CTO in Freshlock Technologies. Today, Rick will share with us his journey, his insights on wellness at the workplace, and stopping the spread of infections.

Thank you for joining us today, Rick. How are you this morning?

Rik 

Well, thank you.

Bryce 

Yes, sir. Rick, you started your career as an engineer, and then you entered healthcare. Would you mind sharing with us your journey, your inspiration, and kind of what that transition was like?

Rik 

My pleasure. I don’t often talk about myself. In fact, probably never have on this line of questioning, but that’s a good question, and I got to think about it in the past days.

I was able to merge my interest in health with my passion for academic disciplines. I’m a bachelor of science in electrical engineering. I happen have some MBA behind me.

So, my health interests really began around performing sensing, around running and biking. So, here I am doing computer architecture, firmware design, and basically, it became coding and some hardware design back in the day before the internet, and measurement turned out to be the bridge between what I suspected and what actually worked. So, you know, you could have a theory, and then you need to back it up with measurements.

So, most of what I think about is quickly undone by measurement, and then I get a new way of thinking, and it’s something I can build on. And so, when it comes to any kind of project management, including companies, measurement is, of course, management. So, that’s my words of wisdom right now.

Since the only way I would ever test these ideas would be by human subjects. So, I gave myself informed consent, as clinical people will get a laugh at, and I commenced a human experiment, and particularly on myself. So, my own road to health and epidemiology started as my first years at UT Austin, believe it or not, in Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting.

And acting, which doesn’t seem like the beginning of any road to what I’m doing now, it has a side benefit that I recognize more today. You know, with politics in the air, the skill of trying on other ideas, which is what, at least good acting is today, called, you know, of many different norms. But needless to say, it helps a lot in marketing, in our attempt to not just assume what thought leaders in your market are thinking, but attempt to fully embrace or be one.

I know that’s the end of my acting talk here. So, anyway, it shapes thoughts for periods of time, could be an hour, a day, a sentence. And with that, I try to even use this in jumping around with political ideas that are far from my own.

And anyway, that’s actually a hobby. So, acting ended when I met a girl. This is at University of Texas, now my dear wife of umpteen years.

I switched my brain quickly to math, electrical engineering, and ultimately got a degree in electrical engineering and computer architecture. I still had no boundaries as to what I wanted to do with it, or any desire to specialize in one thing over another. But bioengineering was interesting to me, but still not in play.

But soon, with all that human experimentation again on myself, you know, I started shifting not to individual health, but to population health. And that is a very, a very different idea and way of thinking. And as clinical, what is wrong with me?

What is wrong with you? To the population, how did this stuff get into the population? And how and why does it spread?

And how can we ultimately stop it? So, I dove deep back in fifth grade to a project I did on disease and sickness, in particular diphtheria, had a little placard, and, you know, wowed the class, maybe, I couldn’t say for sure. So, from self-study, what I learned gave me a basis in knowing what was likely and what was not in the matters of epidemiology, particularly disease spread.

Bryce 

That’s very interesting. So, it’s really almost been in your passion for kind of almost your whole life in a way. All the way back to, did you say fifth grade that you pulled that project out?

Rik 

Yeah, fifth grade. And it was about the time that my cousin came down, just to give you a little anecdote here that was very compelling to me, came down from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. So, I didn’t have anything but an interest in math and science.

And we were playing ping pong. And I stopped the ping pong game I was playing. And I said, you mean to tell me if I could tell you the velocity of this ball and the position of this ball, I would know where it landed.

Well, that was something that I had never thought of. And immediately, my mind went to telling the future. So, if I could stop everything, get a measurement, I could tell the future.

It turned out he went into weather, which is very much what that’s all about.

Bryce 

Yeah, very much. Weather predictions. Yeah, that’s funny.

That’s very interesting.

Rik 

What we know from weather is you got about two or three days, and then it’s not all that accurate Yes.

Bryce 

Yes, for sure. I always like to joke with my dad and say, man, if we could only be a weatherman, you’d only have to be right 60% of the time. So, as you kind of broke into Wello and started to create this brand and this innovative company, what are some unique challenges that you faced while kind of getting Wello off the ground?

Rik 

Well, you know, the main thing is that whatever I do, to the extent that I can, I stick with it. I’m anti-change. So, when you formulate something and you get your measurements and you’ve beaten up an idea that you had that doesn’t work, and you come to one that does, hold it constant.

And you can ask my team, we’re consistent over the years on that. And in particular, Wello, which obtained an FDA clearance in 2018, well before COVID, after Ebola breakout, as you know, I’m in Dallas, Texas, and that’s where Ebola came from. So, the most incarnations that we’ve been through is three large inventions, and that’s over, you know, about 10 years apiece.

So, the real challenge was to find out who needed this. And not only who needed this, of course, who would pay for it and where it would actually be able to save lives. So, the challenge is, ultimately, when you have a product that works, you know, what is the market who is having pain that this can help rid?

Bryce 

Kind of, you know, getting into some of the technologies that you guys have created at Wello, and even your past, kind of your past work at Freshlocks that we kind of touched on briefly. Could we get into some of those technologies you guys have started to develop at Wello and at companies like Freshlock in the past?

Rik 

Yeah. Freshlock, we put networks all over hospitals. This goes back to 1998, where we actually had a portal, and we were doing it in restaurants.

And we were putting this sensors in, wireless sensors, and feeding this thing called the internet. And with that, we would just log temperatures. And of course, you know that temperatures are very important in food safety.

You know, we study pasteurization, in particular, Louie Pasteur, and he saw, you know, what it is to, what it takes in temperature to denature things, basically kill living things in your food. So, with that, we went into hospitals, and into one very large system, we’ll go nameless right now, but probably hundreds of hospitals we And these went to sensors that were in the room, in refrigerators, in the kitchen, all over the kitchen in hospitals, and then ultimately, in things that held tissue, things that shook some salves for anything from oncology to whatever, but they needed to have proof that they were holding this at proper temperature. So, it was ID merged with measurement, and that became Fresh Log Technologies. The real issue came up when I was talking to the CEO of another very large hospital system that was using our networks.

And he said effectively that the biggest problem that he had, while food safety is important, and generally temperature and measurement is, the real problem was in hospital-acquired infection. So, you know, when you look into this, you see just the scariest things, you know, antibiotic-resistant bugs and things like that. Some of them take lives in a day or within hours of getting it, but those are the very few, and it has to do possibly with the fact that we overuse antibiotics, which is a clinical problem that’s very interesting because it turns into the epidemiological problem.

So, what we looked for was the tell of a person that was sick, and we weren’t interested in, please excuse how harsh that comes off, but we weren’t interested in patients. We were worried about the people who were around the patients. Patients stand still, you can do the engineering budget on that, and you can see that they don’t move, they don’t walk, they don’t leave the room, but other people do.

So, what we saw was that the employees were circulating disease, and that would be the common cold, influenza, and things like that, and that could actually hop off into the patient. That patient who got sick in the world of today, Medicare and insurance reimbursement and things like that, you cannot, as a hospital, charge for that. In fact, they penalize the hospital, virtually penalize, by requiring that a person, a patient that gets a hospital-acquired infection, the hospital is responsible for 100%, and that’s all top line that moves to an expense of bottom line.

So, you can imagine the various different things we did, and what we found was body temperature, and this is going into the bio, into physiology, body temperature was the first tell that somebody was getting sick, and body temperature, obviously, elevates. So, the problem with this is, and even to today, that we think about this thing called fever, and we think that this is a curse, and the fever is a response, it is in no way a curse. Even many clinical internists will tell you, do not treat fever, and that’s the whole idea behind aspirin.

Aspirin lowers your temperature, obviously, ibuprofen, other ones. The much more mild is Tylenol, which has a separate, works on a separate different toxin inhibitor system than all the other ones. So, anyway, that’s what we learned, and I can tell you that the greatest interest that really pulled us along was finding out that 98.6 Fahrenheit, which was that thing we learned in elementary school, that is not human mean temperature, and why that’s so important to know is that when we measure at 100.4 and tell people you’re contagious, we’ve missed 95 percent of the infections.

Bryce 

The infection window, wow, wow. So, obviously, when COVID, you know, came into the Americas, and it became such a worldwide epidemic, what was, how did Willow, how did Willow’s temperature readings, how did that how did your business handle that? How did it fit perfectly in that?

Rik 

Well, it’s a good question. So, this world called NCITs, which is non-contact infrared thermometry, we became an NCIT without really realizing it. Those are the things that when you go to the doctor, they either shoot your head, or they have a little device.

Yeah. And so, and that technology was developed by an acquaintance of mine, who also developed the air thermometer, which is not gaining as much favor as the most basic, which is the non-contact. But what we did is we automated it.

So, what we found out in the case of Ebola, and remember, we became very experienced with Ebola and our product, because Dallas was going to be the center of the transmission of Ebola.

Bryce 

Right. So, when those nurses, or was it the nurses or doctors that came back from Africa that they landed in Dallas? Am I correct on that?

Rik 

Yes, you are. It was actually a worker. I think it was a Federal Express worker or something like that.

Oh, okay. Immigrated here, was clean coming in, and then spiked a fever within a few days that got up to 106. And this is reported, maybe it was 104.

And he went to the emergency room, finally. And in the emergency room, they diagnosed him with Ebola and then sent him out. Actually, I can’t say that they sent him to see Ebola, but I’m pretty sure because he was West African, it was well known at the time.

And then they used antipyretics, and it was probably an ibuprofen or something strong that lowered his temperature. And they released him at about 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit. So, they released into the world a contagious person.

And by the way, the drop that you get from these antipyretics, you will be shedding virus as greatly as the temperature that you started at. And that’s what’s so interesting about body temperature.

Bryce 

That is very interesting. So, getting into health technology and the spread of infections, you have, obviously, a very extensive knowledge about stopping the spread of infections, disease, and you must have worked on multiple, obviously, you’ve touched on a couple of these technologies. Could you share with us your experience of Sky Willow?

Rik 

Oh, yes. Sky Willow was when we were doing the temperature measurement throughout hospitals under the auspice of Freshlock Technologies, which, by the way, is the same company as Willow, we just changed the name. And so, anyway, what we did with Sky Willow, it’s a really beautiful, well-designed product, if I may say so, we had a design company do it.

And it’s a device you put up in the ceiling, and it’s over steam tables and, you know, those tight places where restrooms do all their good work. And it had actuators, very simple actuators, and a distance sensor that had a very narrow field of view, so it could actually look at just the surface temperatures of these things. So, people would know to stir, taking a ladle and sort of stir it, so they make sure that everything is a consistent temperature, which is important just for food, the art of food preparation itself.

So, that became, at the time, laid out like a cat-like picture of the table, and we reported on all those temperatures. And we could also do the complicated formula of food safety with regard to how long it takes to get it to temperature, how long it can stay at temperature, how low it can go once it gets to that pasteurization, and for how long before it either spoils, which means tastes bad, or actually could harbor disease, I think.

Bryce 

Interesting. What, I guess, kind of getting into, you know, how do we stop, you know, if we saw how hard it was with COVID, where it just ran rampant, and next thing you know, it truly took over the entire world. What healthcare technologies do you think could put a stop to such a spread, and maybe not such a spread as far as COVID, after it got so widespread, but maybe in the beginning, if we would have had some of these technologies, do you think there are technologies out there that could help that, or do you think there are roadblocks in kind of implementing those technologies?

Rik 

No, that’s a lead-in to what we’re about to do in two weeks, and I don’t know if we talked about this, whether or not we did, thank you for the question. What we’ve got is a completely different look at this, all through the peephole of temperature, and what we did with our 15 million scans of human temperature, and in particular about 30,000 scans from one particular place, we have actually been able to crack the code for what a so-called fever, we don’t call it fever, we just call it elevated temperature, what that actually is. So, if you’re a 97.7 person, you’re going to have a temperature, and we don’t use arithmetic like I’m about to use, but if you’re a 97.7, which most of us are, you’re going to be contagious in the 98.9 area. So, what you can imagine is between 98.9 and 100.4, we have some great charts and analysis on this, you know, in that space is contagious people coming to work using our product, and our product is passing it as our customers have to follow some guidelines, which typically have to be CDC, which says 100.4 is what you can send people home to, and so we’re done with that. That is, as I said before, hopefully is that 5% of the spreaders is all you catch there, and you’ll see these things at airports that usually doing tests and trials no longer, they don’t have any possibility of an FDA approval, even the company FLIR, FLIR makes these infrared cameras early on in COVID said they cannot be used to assess human temperature, they’re plus or minus two degrees C, which is about plus or minus four degrees F, and that you can imagine everything between well and very sick. So, and we did some work with the people who passed through Dallas Love Field that were working behind the TSA stations, and those people were working at Kentucky Fried Chicken and all the various different vendors in the back, and we would stop them, would they have a fever, and we found quite a few, but then somebody set up for Southwest Airlines and screened, I believe, about 2 million people and never found one fever. So, we knew we were onto something, and so this new thing that we have is just an AI piece that we inject into our station, and remember our station is very precise, and that it gets you to site yourself perfectly. You can’t do that by teaching a receptionist how to, you know, how and where to do that by these devices that are contact devices.

You know, you’ll see people do that, you’ll see people go around the neck and up and around. It just leads to a variation in what those temperatures are. So, what we did is we algorithmically, and using an AI algorithm, which AI kind of means we don’t know exactly how it works, we can just prove that it does, and we did that with PCR testing.

So, the genetic testing that was done at this one site was for people who were symptomatic or even asymptomatic, and it depended on the reason that they would do that, and we merged that together with the algorithm, and we determined what the normal range for a person could be, independent of a fixed temperature, and what the out of range is. In other words, they could go a little above normal, and it could be due to all sorts of things, none related to health. Sometimes we saw Adderall in a case or two spike a little bit of temperature, but never out of range, and with those outliers, we were able to identify who were likely contagious.

So, the answer to all this, because there’s this incredible, it’s almost political interplay between things like mandates for vaccine, mandates for masking and all that, what we determined is about one in 100 people are likely contagious, a little more when the epidemic is in full bloom, and a little less when, you know, we’re in the spring season, and there’s not a lot of it. And so, that is, the answer to that is, is that when you come to work, and if you’re likely contagious, and I mean not extremely high, which is rare, you will be asked to wear an N95, and N95 is, you know, standard face covering, a little better than a cloth mask that we provide, and now we’re looking at, instead of telling 100 people, everyone, they need to wear a mask all the time, we’re only focused on that one person who’s likely contagious. For that, we will get a 95% reduction in the, what’s called the disease burden in the workplace. So, no spreading, very little.

Bryce 

And I know that that’s obviously a huge kind of illness and wellness in the workplace is now, of course, since COVID and beforehand, but really, since COVID, it’s very focused on now, whether that’s mental health, or whether that’s just your regular, hey, are you sick? You know, and that’s very crucial to a lot of companies that are looking to bounce back after COVID and keep their employees, you know, healthy and happy. Can you recommend strategies that could help maintain occupational health and safety for kind of employees’ well-being?

Rik 

Well, yes, and I sort of did elaborate that in the space.

Bryce 

Yeah, so I know you just mentioned that with being able to kind of have them test and kind of hone in on that smaller number of individuals, instead of saying, hey, everybody needs to wear a mask to the smaller individuals. Are there any other strategies that we can also help follow?

Rik 

Well, you know, I have to say that there are, I want to say there are not, except for what I just explained. But, you know, surveys seem to be important. We have a survey on our device.

You can take the survey and take your temperature, but surveys are the honor system, and we find it has about the efficacy of temperature screening in the past, which is about 5% of the contagious people. And then what happens is if you answer the question a certain way, you’re going to wind up not being able to enter, or perhaps wear a mask, which is less disruptive to your work team, as well as your, you know, paid time off and things like that. So, surveys and temperature screening are the best ways.

Now, that’s because survey screening takes a minute. We take three seconds. Now, in 10 minutes, you can determine if you have COVID with an antigen test.

Now, that’ll be $10 a person, and the time that it takes is very significant to employers and employees, which is 10 minutes. And that’s only to get the answer to, do I have COVID? And we know right now that influenza spiked a month ago.

It’s going, something is going on around. I got it about a week ago, which is kind of a good thing because I get to play with my temperature and make a lot of measurements. And by the way, it identified me at the peak of mine, which was about 99.1 degrees Fahrenheit. And it called me out. So, there are other methods, but PCR is two to three hours and about $100, $150. The place that we had our PCR and all of our large, broad study, large population study, that was a hospital. And hospitals, you know, in their sleep, they, you know, can get a sample and they can give you a diagnosis as to whether you have COVID or not. That’s what we use to prove and to improve our algorithm.

Bryce 

Really, it sounds like as far as the options that are out there, whether it’s very expensive, being able to use $100 or a $10 test per person, or a survey, which doesn’t seem to cover all the bases that it needs to cover. It really seems like temperature readings and Willow is really the best course of option for whether that’s cost effectiveness and whether that’s just effectiveness in general.

Rik 

Yes, well, you would expect that. The shameless kind of advertising from a promoter, I think of myself not as a promoter. Yes, I mean, we are so enthused and excited about this and we’re going to get the word out in about two weeks, three weeks.

We’ve amassed thought leaders that see what this is. We have a complete paper ready for publication in a science journal. And so, I have to say that I know I’m not wrong.

I know that I’m spot on. And the real question is, is there people going to want to get this level of workplace safety? And I think a lot of people were.

We have about 1,500 units out in the world, and that’s in the world. And some of them by very large companies who put them all throughout all their manufacturing throughout the world, multinational companies. And this is what we hope to take to a market needing this internationally.

Bryce 

Definitely. And definitely not to shamelessly plug Willow and make this into an advertisement, because it’s not. But whenever, as our guests know, I love to have conversations with people who are pushing the boundaries and who are truly innovating.

And that’s what this is. That’s what Willow is. It’s a direct response to something that happened in the world that you guys have seemed to have taken the next step, which is so interesting to me.

And it’s so much less innovative than a COVID test, which as all of us know, are probably my least favorite thing to do, maybe other than a strep throat test, whether it goes up your nose or down your throat. That’s what’s so interesting. And what I can’t get off of is how it might be this simple, we’ve taken our temperatures for so long, and you get sick, hey, take your temperature.

But you guys have truly thought outside of the box and taken that next step, which I just love so much. And why I wanted to have you on, Rick, to kind of talk about this. And I’m trying to pull these, pull this out of you, not to make it seem like an advertisement.

Can you share with us, I know in the past we’ve talked about, can you share with us an incident where Willow improved employees’ health and wellness? I know you talked about yourself where it already identified you kind of two weeks ago with catching the flu. But could you talk about maybe an incident where Willow has helped improve employees’ health and wellness?

Rik 

Sure. And by the way, to talk about individual situation brings in the real politic of this. And it’s all because we’re human beings, and where we can play with, or I can play and measure things.

When I play and measure with human beings, I need all sorts of things, like informed consent, when we’re experimenting. We have found, the latest one was we detected in the NICU, the neonatal ICU, one of our customers, we detected a person with very high fever. It was a mother who was coming in religiously as much of the day as she could.

And she happened to enter that day and was not allowed to go further. And she obviously fully understood it, but she was dealing with a respiratory disease. And it became more important in her mind to see her premature baby.

But it was obvious that her passions overcame her irrational point of view. We have in one of these studies, we see an outbreak occurring. And while it didn’t transmit to any one of the senior residents in this particular hospital, which is full of permanent senior residents, what we did see is that A gave it to B, gave it to C, gave it to D, and each one of them had an absence profile that told you how severe it was, two days, four days, eight days.

And then we could see when that individual came back. Those individuals are completely anonymous. Even to us, we have no information.

They can reconcile it at the employer level. But all we’re going to do is tell this person who’s not registered with our system, but badges in with it. All we’re going to do is say, wear a mask.

It’s right over there. And that they need to wear all day. And they need, the most inconvenient part is they can’t lunch with people because that’s what we found in that outbreak, that that’s where it was spreading because all of those people were wearing masks.

And good ones too, I might add. So that became the screen door in the submarine, which is congregating in close proximity to other well people.

Bryce 

Right.

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About the Guest

Author

Rik Heller linkedin

Rik is a President at Wello – the only FDA-cleared no-touch clinical thermometer station. He holds numerous patents and product licensors for automatic test equipment, indoor Location Systems, and temperature logging throughout facilities.

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