Nancy Luo didn’t expect an answer when she e-mailed Steve Jobs one Wednesday evening two summers ago. But less than a day later, an Apple emissary knocked on her door at the University of Chicago Hospitals.
It was Aug. 25, 2010, the last day of a long heatwave in Chicago. Luo — a second-year resident at the hospital’s internal medicine department — had been assigned the tricky task of figuring out whether a pilot program that put iPads in the hands of the hospital’s residents was working out. So she sent a note to the CEO of Apple.
The iPad had hit the market just four months earlier, but the young, tech-savvy residents at the hospital were already using Apple’s tablet to access medical data on the go. Luo thought that with some internal tweaking, she could measure whether the students were actually saving time with the iPad. “I just wanted to see if maybe Apple wanted to help us out,” she remembers.
Jobs didn’t get back to her, but at 5:21 a.m. the next day, she had an answer. Luo didn’t even read the e-mail at first, assuming it was some sort of automatic response. But when she did, she was amazed. The note was from an Apple employee named Afshad Mistri, who offered to swing by the hospital later that afternoon — he just happened to be in Chicago that day. “Your e-mail was forwarded to me for follow up from Steve,” wrote Mistri, Apple’s medical market manager, the company’s go-to guy for the medical industry.
Apple is a company that builds stuff for consumers. Macs. iPods. iPhones. iPads. Though these devices may show up inside businesses, the company rarely promotes them for corporate use, and it has slowly pulled away from the few products it does sell to businesses. Its XServe servers died a premature death this past January. But for some reason, Apple is pushing the iPad into hospitals, playing against its well-polished image as the world’s most successful consumer gadget company.
Afshad Mistri is Apple’s secret weapon in a stealth campaign to get the iPad into the hands of doctors. And it’s a campaign that seems to be paying off.
If you talk to technical staffers at any large hospital that is using — or even thinking of using — iPads today, Afshad Mistri’s name is pretty likely to come up. Earlier in November, he organized a cross-Canada series of invitation-only conferences for medical professionals in Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, and Toronto who are looking at using the iPad at work.
He’s also the guy who in September launched a special iTunes room for healthcare, and promoted it to a select group of healthcare app developers.
Everybody who’s met him seems to like him. Luo describes him as “super friendly, super charasmatic, down-to-earth guy.” True to his name, and Apple’s inscrutable public relations practices, Mistri declined to comment for this article.
He can’t talk to us because Apple fires employees who talk with the press without permission, but also because the company must walk a fine line in the medical arena. Right now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seems set on regulating the software that runs on the iPad, not the device itself, but if the FDA were to decide that Apple is marketing the iPad for regulated medical uses, it could unleash a regulatory nightmare on the company.
Apple has to carefully watch what it says when it talks about the iPad in medicine, says Bradley Thompson, a partner with the law firm Epstein Becker Green and an expert on FDA regulations. As long as they promote it as a general-use computing device, Apple should be fine. But “if they were promoting it for specific medical device uses,” he says, “they would cross a line.”
Mistri isn’t new to the medical profession. According to his LinkedIn profile, he got a bachelor’s degree in computer science and then cut his teeth as an engineer on the Tomahawk Cruise Missile Program during the late 1980s. He got into using computers to display 3-D images, including an x-ray technology known as computerized tomography (CT) during a 15-year career at Silicon Graphics before jumping ship to Apple five years ago.
Like some rare subatomic particle, he’s existential proof that Apple sees iPads in the hospital as a special phenomenon. “Just the fact that he exists, that there’s a director for medical marketing, tells you it’s different because Apple never does vertical markets,” says Elliot Fishman a professor of radiology at Johns Hopkins. “The fact that two years ago they assigned someone to that position tells you there is a difference.”