It isn’t every tech company that gets to help save lives, and not every health-care company that can utilize cutting-edge technological advances. At ImPACT Applications, chief executive officer Michael Wahlster is bridging the two industries to keep up with rapid changes and exercise the best practices of both technology and medicine.
ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) is a digital concussion evaluation system. The software helps diagnose concussions, but the company’s products are more than just computer programs, Wahlster says. ImPACT Applications also raises awareness about concussions for doctors and everyday users, like athletic coaches. The ability to detect concussions is more crucial than ever. About 300,000 sports-related concussions occur each year in the United States, and many go undiagnosed, leading the United States Centers for Disease Control to label the problem a “silent epidemic.”
“We think it is a really important part of our company, not just that we know the product is being used, but we know it is being used properly.”
“It’s an often-misunderstood injury. Even medical doctors miss it frequently,” Wahlster says. “There are a lot of myths about concussion that have persisted, or it goes unrecognized.”
Those issues are compounded by the fact that often athletes or employees don’t want to come forward about having a concussion for fear of missing sports or work time.
The tests produced by ImPACT measure symptoms, verbal and visual memory, reaction time, and attention span to test cognitive function after an injury. While some software companies just produce a product and let the clients figure out how to best use it, ImPACT takes a different approach.
“We think it is a really important part of our company, not just that we know the product is being used, but we know it is being used properly,” Wahlster says. That means educating clients—including parents, employers, athletes, doctors, and schools—on what concussions look like, how to recognize symptoms, and how to test for a concussion.
ImPACT provides video on demand, webinars, online training, and other methods for clients to learn more about the product and concussions themselves. “Just putting the software in someone’s hands without the proper training is irresponsible,” Wahlster says.
Today, most professional and semiprofessional sports organizations, including the NFL, NBA, NASCAR, and Formula 1 use ImPACT testing. It’s also used in 1,500 hospitals, 450 school districts, and by thousands of clinicians across the US and Canada.
Wahlster has been with the company for more than a decade, but only took over as chief executive officer in 2013. Trained as a lawyer, he worked as ImPACT’s outside legal counsel since 2004, but put the company on the fast track to new innovation when he took the executive chair a few years ago. When he started as CEO, ImPACT had not launched a new product in six or seven years—a fact Wahlster quickly changed.
“It was a really good culture, but it wasn’t necessarily growth-oriented,” Wahlster says. “Shifting gears and going into a pretty quick growth mode for everyone was a challenge.”
His leadership style is collaborative and patient, Wahlster says, which has helped guide the company through its growing pains. “Shock and awe doesn’t work very well, and it’s not my style,” he says. “I took my time in 2013 and was gradual and gentle in introducing new concepts; then we picked up the pace.”
Soon after Wahlster took the helm, the company rolled out the Mobile ImPACT Customer Center and Sideline ImPACT, which are mobile units that allow clients to see test scores and check their symptoms on their mobile devices. “We wanted to demonstrate that we could play in the mobile space,” Wahlster says.
In 2014, they released ImPACT Passport, a product more targeted to the end user than the health-care professional. The app can be downloaded for free and gives each user a unique identifier called a Passport ID. A doctor will be able to use the identifier to access a patient’s ImPACT test results without worrying about violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) privacy laws.
All of these new innovations are made possible by ImPACT’s network of more than 3,000 trained health-care providers.
“This is a huge advantage,” Wahlster says. “You want to know when you go to a clinic that the person you are talking to understands ImPACT, can read the results, and understands them.”
Ideally, clients would use ImPACT even before they have concussions. Wahlster hopes that eventually everyone will take a baseline test, which takes about twenty minutes, so that his or her neurocognitive functions are recording at a normal level. Then if there is an injury, another test can be given to compare to earlier results and help medical professionals determine what to do next. The program will also compare results against people in the same height and weight classes to put those results in context.
“This doesn’t tell a health-care provider that yes, there definitely is a concussion, but it provides raw data, like a blood pressure cuff, where a doctor can make observations and diagnoses based on those facts,” Wahlster says.
In 2015, the company introduced ImPACT Workplace, an app targeting the employee-employer wellness space. It allows employers to customize the front end of the test to help them see where injuries are happening and hopefully work to eliminate them, Wahlster says.
The public health issue at the core of the company is why client training is so important. It helps ImPACT bridge the gap between being just a health-care company or solely a technology company.
“When you hear from health-care providers about how ImPACT assisted them, or parents who say they don’t know what they would have done without it—there is a higher calling,” he says. “People will say that we saved their lives. You don’t get that a lot from financial reporting software.”
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