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Keeping Pace in the Boardroom

Several months ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved a cutting-edge pacemaker that transmits vital data to the doctor’s office …

Several months ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved a cutting-edge pacemaker that transmits vital data to the doctor’s office as the patient conducts his daily business. Though originally conceived as a purely medical unit that enables doctors to monitor the health of their patients’ hearts and the effectiveness of their pacemakers, the innovation may soon have an unintended but extraordinarily far-reaching effect on the American corporate boardroom.

The Biotronik Home Monitoring System is the first device to automatically transmit medical data to a health provider. It does so by combining the resources of a traditional pacemaker and a short-range radio frequency transmitter, that are then connected to a cell phone-like device compact enough to fit into the patient’s purse or pocket. The transmitter steadily sends data from the heart to the receiver/telephone, which then transmits it to the Biotronik service center. The center forwards it on to the doctor’s office.

In theory, this procedure enables a physician to keep track of a patient’s heartbeat and the condition of his pacemaker. More important, it allows the doctor to tell whether the patient is still breathing. This is why the device, or variants on the theme, could have such an astounding effect on boardroom behavior. As this column has outlined in the past, corporate boardrooms have long been plagued by the problem of dead or otherwise inanimate board members.

Though dead directors are probably preferable to incompetent, dishonest or politically compromised board members, they serve no real function and are generally a great embarrassment to all parties other than themselves.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to tell whether a director is actually dead or merely napping. Tried-and-true methods such as overturned coffee pots and carelessly bandied cattle prods have led to a number of ruinous lawsuits in the past few years, and many companies are now reluctant to slap an apparently deceased board member on the back to see if he is still breathing, fearing assault charges.

That’s where the Biotronik Home Monitoring System comes in. By steadily monitoring pacemaker activity, doctors will be able to quickly determine when board members have expired, and can immediately transmit this data to the relevant authorities. This relieves the other board members of the acute embarrassment of having to ask questions like, “Still breathing, Henry?” or “Are you still with us, Vernon?” or “Nothing personal, but have you slipped this mortal coil, Beth?” Safe in the knowledge that the motionless board member at the end of the table is not merely listless but is actually dead, the other directors can call in a mortician.

This is not the only use for such a device. In theory, individual investors could have the units attached to their pacemakers, warning their doctors of unusual cardiac activity in preparation for making risky stock purchases. For example, numerous deaths could have been avoided during the Internet implosion if doctors had simply had the wherewithal to monitor investors’ heartbeats when they were preparing to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of dot-com stocks. Relaying this information to spouses, family members or friends could have prevented many deaths. Or many stock purchases.

It is true that the Biotronik Home Monitoring System was not originally designed for the boardroom or the investment arena. But the suggested uses fall well within the parameters of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The cell phone was never envisioned as an instrument of torture that garrulous pinheads could use to inflict pain on their fellow commuters, yet this is what it has become. Just as the Internet was not originally intended as an electronic charnel house.

If the cell phone and the Internet have been undermined and perverted, why not turn this pattern on its head by using the pacemaker monitor for a far more socially beneficial purpose than its designers originally imagined? I can think of no greater glory for an inventor than to learn that his amazing brainchild was used to irrefutably identify all the dead members of a corporate board of directors.

Too bad it’s too late for Enron.

Joe Queenan is a regular columnist for CE.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.