Thomas Devlin wins Champions of Health Care Innovation In Health Care Award

Dr. Thomas Devlin is internationally recognized as a leading stroke physician preparing to train others right here in Chattanooga at Erlanger Health System.
photo Brain scans can be seen on a cellphone app, left, as Dr. Thomas Devlin, right, and Dr. Justin Calvert discuss the latest technology available to speed the time it takes to find a clot on a stroke victim Wednesday inside the special procedures viewing room at Erlanger.

In a stroke emergency, a patient loses about 1.9 million brain cells a minute, says Chattanooga neurologist Dr. Thomas Devlin.

"It's a time-sensitive disease," says Devlin, who is leading efforts to drastically cut down on the time it takes to recognize and treat strokes and drawing worldwide attention to the Scenic City and Erlanger Health System in doing so.

(Read more about how we're recognizing the Chattanooga area health care champions.)

Devlin, director of Erlanger's Neuroscience Institute and chairman of neurology at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine Chattanooga, is the winner of the Innovation in Health Care Award among this year's Champions of Health Care.

Joe Winick, lead executive for the Erlanger Innovation Center, termed Dr. Devlin "an international thought leader" in the provision of care to those impacted by strokes.

"His efforts have served to differentiate Erlanger to be a world leader," he says in his nomination of Devlin.

Strokes take place when a blood clot or hemorrhage disrupts blood supply in the brain. What often happens is that patients wait for hours at an outside hospital before being diagnosed and by then their brain is too damaged when they arrive at Erlanger, Devlin says.

The 62-year-old physician is using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to improve stroke care and working with a pair of California-based companies to bolster patient outcomes.

One company created a phone application that alerts a stroke team when a patient's head scan reveals a blood clot. The other company uses ultrasound from a robotic headset placed outside the skull to non-invasively locate clots.

Erlanger, Devlin and the Chattanooga team are working with companies and testing new drugs which can be given with so-called clot-grabbing procedures to improve patient outcomes. Key initiatives which they've garnered national and international attention revolve around artificial intelligence, Devlin says.

"This is really exciting," he says. "This is the coolest stuff. For a 62-year-old guy, I feel like I'm back like an 18-year-old."

Devlin, awarded his medical degree from the Baylor College of Medicine, calls what has been developed "an early warning and recognition system for strokes" that uses a type of AI known as "deep learning."

"We've taken all we know on the clinical side and now we're partners with the best companies and bringing the two together," he says. "The potential for good is unbelievable."

Devlin says that the Erlanger team has given one company thousands of brain scans with clots and others which are normal. The computer looks at all of the data and it figures out where the clot is in the brain and teaches itself, he says.

"The computer is hungry," Devlin says.

Under the old method of determining if a patient has a clot, there were a lot of steps, he says.

"You're sitting on two, three hours if not longer," Devlin says.

But with the new technology, a patient can receive a CAT scan, and within 10 minutes of coming into an emergency room, the computer automatically reads the scan and if there's a clot, and an alarm goes out to Erlanger physicians, he says.

And the alarm goes out over smartphones along with hundreds of images of the patient's head, Devlin says.

"This technology is going to have the biggest impact on improving stroke outcomes," he says.

Erlanger, Devlin says, is the first center to have the technology on a commercial basis and helped the company receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

"It's that partnership between our clinical team giving these guys feedback and we're really easy to work with," he says. "We're doing the pivotal study to prove the benefits."

In addition, Erlanger is the first center to have it at its main location and throughout a hospital-wide network [in the region]," Devlin says. "It's going to be absolutely revolutionary."

Meanwhile, the other technology based on ultrasound is "going to be super-helpful," the physician says.

The Erlanger team was approached by a company that developed a helmet system which automatically scans the brain and shows its blood system, he says.

"It uses a different type of artificial intelligence," Devlin says.

The technology offers a two-fold process, one of which gives wave forms, he says. That technology is FDA approved, Devlin says, and sold throughout the United States.

Winner: Dr. Thomas Devlin

* Accomplishments: Dr. Devlin has helped Erlanger gain national and international attention in stroke care. He has been involved most recently in utilizing Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to diagnose patients.

The next phase under research is to automatically teach the computer how to look wave forms and tell exactly where the clot is in the brain, which is not yet FDA approved, he says. That all becomes a portable system which can be used on ambulances, Devlin says.

"That's the EKG for the brain," he says. "We were the first center to develop this with a California company."

Devlin, who is married to Chattanooga cardiologist Dr. Carol Gruver, says his goal moving ahead is to train the next generation of physicians to take over for what he and the team are undertaking, though he's anticipating staying around for the next decade or so.

"We change the world in terms of stroke care," he says. "We're the No. 1 center that led the world to this new generation of stroke treatment. This team led the world in this way. I want to continue to be an integral part of that team."

Additionally, he wants to continue to work with the Erlanger administration and utilize the resources which have been built which he calls "a very delicate and unique situation."

"I'd love to for rest of my life just live in this space where we have the ability to work with the best scientific minds in the world and bring that to the bedside," says Devlin, whose son has started medical school at Emory University.

What's happening is a Chattanooga story that looks to make the city a low-cost entry point for companies to partner with the Erlanger team, he says.

One of his biggest goals is to see a $40 million Erlanger neuroscience building next to the Children's Hospital Kennedy Outpatient Center to bring the team under one roof, Devlin says.

"It's to construct a building where not only stroke research is done but doing for other areas of neuroscience exactly what we've done for strokes," he says. He cites such diseases as Alzheimer's, movement disorders, neuro-muscular disorders, seizures, sleep disorders and others.

"That's where you're going to have the best melting pot of ideas," Devlin says.