DULUTH, Minn. — TJ Kennedy was banking on future growth in the telemedicine industry when he started a Duluth-based small business that manufactures and sells devices aimed at helping first responders in the field communicate with doctors at distant hospitals.

But what Kennedy could not have anticipated last May was a pandemic that would rapidly accelerate a transition in the health care industry away from in-person visits and toward alternate means such as video consultations.

"We're seeing a big shift in the general medical marketplace where telemedicine is much more widely accepted and is being embraced because of the current situation," Kennedy said. "And I don't think that's going to just be a pandemic issue. I think it's going to be a long-term solution, where we're able to leverage telemedicine to provide quicker and better care in the home and in rural places."

Kennedy is CEO of Allerio, a startup headquartered in downtown Duluth's Technology Village, with satellite offices in the Detroit, Washington and Charleston, S.C., metro areas.

The company manufactures an electronic device that gives emergency medical service personnel access to a high-speed internet connection in the field. The mobile unit is capable of recording vital health information — such as that from a heart monitor — and relaying it to doctors at a health care facility, along with providing two-way video communication, among other features.

The device is small and lightweight, able to be carried along on any call. It can connect with any available commercial wireless network — AT&T or Verizon, for example — as well as FirstNet, a nationwide broadband network available to first responders.

An Allerio Mobile Hub device. (Photo courtesy of Allerio)
An Allerio Mobile Hub device. (Photo courtesy of Allerio)

Kennedy, a former firefighter, state trooper and flight paramedic in Utah, earlier served as president of the First Responder Network Authority — an independent partnership between the federal government and private industry that created FirstNet.

He said the goal of establishing Allerio was to give EMS workers a reliable and timely connection with doctors. That could mean relaying vitals for a cardiac patient prior to their arrival at the ER or allowing a patient who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to consult with a doctor and receive a treatment plan without needing to take an ambulance ride to the hospital.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced health care facilities to halt many routine in-person appointments. Kennedy said the video technology could have uses in long-term care facilities or temporary hospitals, where a large number of patients need to be seen and officials want to limit visitors.

"You need to have good connectivity to have a two-way video consultation," Kennedy said. "And you need it bedside in homes or inside a commercial building or an independent living center. You need good connectivity inside all these structures — not necessarily just in the ambulance or fire engine."

Noting that the company is still in its infancy and continuing to develop, Kennedy wouldn't disclose details on how many devices are already in use or the pricing model for clients, though he said the service is offered on a subscription basis and is "affordable" for agencies.

Kennedy did say the technology was in use at 14 EMS agencies around the country prior to this week, and an increased demand has prompted Allerio to accelerate production. The company employs about 20 people at its four locations.

"We had already expected to ramp up this spring," he said, "but the the current situation has pushed us to go even quicker."