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  • Everyone connected with healthcare supports interoperability saying it improves care, reduces medical errors and lowers costs
  • But interoperability is a long way from reality and electronic patient records are only part of an answer
  • Could Blockchain a technology disrupting financial systems resolve interoperability in healthcare?
  • Blockchain is an open-source decentralized “accounting” platform that underpins crypto currencies
  • Blockchain does not require any central data hubs, which in healthcare have been shown to be easily breached
  • Blockchain technology creates a virtual digital ledger that could automatically record every interaction with patient data in a cryptographically verifiable manner
  • Some experts believe that Blockchain could improve diagnosis, enhance personalised therapies, and prevent highly prevalent devastating and costly diseases
  • Why aren’t healthcare leaders pursuing Blockchain with vigour?
 
Why Blockchain technology will not disrupt healthcare

Blockchain technology is disrupting financial systems by enhancing the reconciliation of global transactions and creating an immutable audit trail, which significantly enhances the ability to track information at lower costs, while protecting confidentiality. Could Blockchain do something similar for healthcare and resolve the challenges of interoperability by providing an inexpensive and enhanced means to immutably track, store, and protect a variety of patient data from multiple sources, while giving different levels of access to health professionals and the public?
 
Blockchain and crypto currencies

You might not have heard of Blockchain, but probably you have heard of bitcoin; an intangible or crypto currency, which was created in 2008 when a programmer called Satoshi Nakamoto (a pseudonym) described bitcoin’s design in a paper posted to a cryptography e-mail list. Then in early 2009 Nakamoto released Blockchain: an open source, global decentralized accounting ledger, which underpins bitcoin by executing and immutably recording transactions without the need of a middleman. Instead of a centrally managed database, copies of the cryptographic balance book are spread across a network and automatically updated as transactions take place. Bitcoin gave rise to other crypto-currencies. Crypto currencies only exist as transactions and balances recorded on a public ledger in the cloud, and verified by a distributed group of computers.
 
Broad support for interoperability
 
Just about everyone connected with healthcare - clinicians, providers, payers, patients and policy makers - support interoperability, suggesting data must flow rapidly, easily and flawlessly through healthcare ecosystems to reduce medical errors, improve diagnosis, enhance patient care, and lower costs. Despite such overwhelming support, interoperability is a long way from a reality. As a result, health providers spend too much time calling other providers about patient information, emailing images and records, and attempting to coordinate care efforts across disjointed and disconnected healthcare systems. This is a significant drain on valuable human resources, which could be more effectively spent with patients or used to remotely monitor patients’ conditions. Blockchain may provide a solution to challenges of interoperability in healthcare.
 
Electronic patient records do not resolve interoperability

A common misconception is that electronic patient records (EPR) resolve interoperability. They do not. EPRs were created to coordinate patient care inside healthcare settings by replacing paper records and filing cabinets. EPRs were not designed as open systems, which can easily collect, amalgamate and monitor a range of medical, genetic and personal information from multiple sources. To realize the full potential and promise of interoperability EPRs need to be easily accessible digitally, and in addition, have the capability to collect and manage remotely generated patient healthcare data as well as pharmacy and prescription information; family-health histories; genomic information and clinical-study data. To make this a reality existing data management conventions need to be significantly enhanced, and this is where Blockchain could help.

 

Blockchain will become a standard technology
 
Think of a bitcoin, or any other crypto currency, as a block capable of storing data. Each block can be subdivided countless times to create subsections. Thus, it is easy to see that a block may serve as a directory for a healthcare provider. Data recorded on a block can be public, but are encrypted and stored across a network. All data are immutable except for additions. Because of these and other capabilities, it seems reasonable to assume that Blockchain may become a standard technology over the next decade.
 
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The IoT and healthcare  

Future healthcare shock
Blockchain and healthcare

Because crypto currencies are unregulated and sometimes used for money laundering, they are perceived as “shadowy”. However, this should not be a reason for not considering Blockchain technology. 30 corporations, including J.P. Morgan and Microsoft, are uniting to develop decentralized computing networks based on Blockchain technology. Further crypto currencies are approaching the mainstream,  and within the financial sector, there is significant and growing interests in Blockchain technology to improve interoperability. Financial services and healthcare have similar interoperability challenges, but health providers appear reluctant to contemplate fundamental re-design of EPRs; despite the fact that there is a critical need for innovation as genomic data and personalized targeted therapies rise in significance and require advanced data management capabilities. Here are 2 brief examples, which describe how Blockchain is being used in financial services.
 
Blockchain’s use in financial services
 
In October 2017, the State Bank of India (SBI) announced its intention to implement Blockchain technology to improve the efficiency, transparency, security and confidentiality of its transactions while reducing costs. In November 2017, the SBI’s Blockchain partner, Primechain Technologies suggested that the key benefits of Blockchain for banks include, “Greatly improved security, reduced infrastructure cost, greater transparency, auditability and real-time automated settlements.”
 
Dubai, a global city in the United Arab Emirates, is preparing to introduce emCash as a crypto currency, and could become the world’s first Blockchain government by 2020. The changes Dubai is implementing eventually will lead to the end of traditional banking. Driving the transformation is Nasser Saidi, chief economists of the Dubai International Financial Centre, a former vice-governor of the Bank of Lebanon and a former economics and industry minister of that country. Saidi perceives the benefits of Blockchain to include the phasing out of costly traditional infrastructure services such as accounting and auditing.

 
Significant data challenges

Returning to healthcare, there are specific challenges facing interoperability, which include: (i) how to ensure patient records remain secure and are not lost or corrupted given that so many people are involved in the healthcare process for a single patient, and communication gaps and data-sharing issues are pervasive, and (ii) how can health providers effectively amalgamate and monitor genetic, clinical and personal data from a variety of sources, which are required to improve diagnosis, enhance treatments and reduce the burden of devastating and costly diseases. 
 
Vulnerability of patient data

Not only do EPRs fail to resolve these two basic challenges of interoperability they are vulnerable to cybercriminals. Recently there has been an epidemic of computer hackers stealing EPRs. In June 2016 a hacker claimed to have obtained more than 10m health records, and was alleged to be selling them on the dark web. Also in 2016 in the US there were hundreds of breaches involving millions of EPRs, which were reported to the Department of Health and Human Services. The hacking of 2 American health insurers alone, Anthem and Premera Blue Cross, affected some 90m EPRs.
 
In the UK, patient data and NHS England’s computers are no less secure. On 12 May 2017, a relatively unsophisticated ransomware called WannaCry, infected NHS computers and affected the health service’s ability to provide care to patients. In October 2017, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report on the impact of WannaCry, which found that 19,500 medical appointments were cancelled, computers at 600 primary care offices were locked and five hospitals had to divert ambulances elsewhere. Amyas Morse, head of the NAO suggests that, “The NHS needs to get their act together to ensure the NHS is better protected against future attacks.”

 
Healthcare legacy systems
 
Despite the potential benefits of Blockchain to healthcare, providers have not worked out fully how to move on from their legacy systems and employ innovative digital technologies with sufficient vigour to effectively enhance the overall quality of care while reducing costs. Instead they tinker at the edges of technologies, and fail to learn from best practices in adjacent industries.  
 
“Doctors and the medical community are the biggest deterrent for change”
 
Devi Shetty, heart surgeon, founder, and Chairperson of Narayana Health articulates this failure“Doctors and the medical community are the biggest deterrent for the penetration of innovative IT systems in healthcare to improve patient care . . . IT has penetrated every industry in the world with the exception of healthcare. The only IT in patient care is software built into medical devices, which doctors can’t stop. Elsewhere there is a dearth of innovative IT systems to enhance care,” see video. Notwithstanding, Shetty believes that, “The future of healthcare is not going to be an extension of the past. The next big thing in healthcare is not going to be a new drug, a new medical device or a new operation. It is going to be IT.”
 
 
Google, Blockchain and healthcare
 
Previous HealthPad Commentaries have suggested that the failure of healthcare providers to fully embrace innovative technologies, especially those associated with patient data, has created an opportunity for giant technology companies to enter the healthcare sector, which shall dis-intermediate healthcare professionals.

In May 2017, Google announced that its AI-powered subsidiary, DeepMind Health, intends to develop the “Verifiable Data Audit”, which uses Blockchain technology to create a digital ledger, which automatically records every interaction with patient data in a cryptographically verifiable manner. This is expected to significantly reduce medical errors since any change or access to the patient data is visible, and both healthcare providers and patients would be able to securely track personal health records in real-time.

 
Takeaways

Blockchain is a new innovative and powerful technology that could play a significant role in overcoming the challenges of interoperability in healthcare, which would significantly help to enhance the quality of care, improve diagnosis, reduce costs and prevent devastating diseases. However, even if Blockchain were the perfect technological solution, which enabled interoperability, change would not happen in the short term. As Max Planck said, “A new scientific innovation does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” While we wait for those who control our healthcare systems to die, billions of people will continue to suffer from preventable lifetime diseases, healthcare costs will escalate, healthcare systems will go bankrupt, and productivity in the general economy will fall.
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  • Over the next decade the combination of big data, analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT) will radically change healthcare
  • The social media revolution has raised peoples’ awareness of lifestyles and healthcare
  • The rise of smart watches and fitness sensors combined with IOT and Artificial Intelligence (AI) paves the way for preventative medicine becoming a key driver in the management of straining healthcare services and spending
  • Big data, analytics and the IoT is positioned to accelerate change away from output-orientated healthcare systems to value-based outcome-orientated systems
  • Patients and payers are increasingly aware of the opportunities and demanding change
  • The slowness for MedTech companies to change creates opportunities for newcomers to penetrate and grab share of healthcare markets
  • Regulation and requirements to undergo significant clinical studies to become standard of care will slow consumer and patient access to services
  
The IoT and healthcare
 
The Internet of Things (IoT) is positioned to radically transform healthcare. There are powerful social, demographic, technological, and economic drivers of this change. We describe some of these, and suggest that, within the next 10 years, there will be hundreds of millions of networked medical devices sharing data and knowhow, and this will drive a significant shift away from traditional healthcare systems focused on outputs to value-based systems dedicated to prevention and improving outcomes while lowering costs.
 

The IoT and its potential impact on healthcare
 
The IoT, which Cisco refers to as “the Internet of Everything” and GE as the “Industrial Internet” is also referred to as “machine-to-machine” (M2M) technologies, and as “smart sensors”. Whatever term is used, the IoT is an ever-expanding universe of devices embedded with microchips, sensors, and wireless communications capabilities, which enable them to collect, store, send and receive data. These smart devices and the data they collect are interconnected via the Internet, which significantly expands their potential uses and value. The IoT enables connectivity from anywhere to anywhere at any time, and facilitates the accumulation of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to either complement or replace the human decision-maker. Over the next decade, anything that can be connected to the Internet probably will be. The Internet provides an almost ubiquitous, high-speed network, and cloud-based analytics, which, in nanoseconds, can read, analyse and act upon terabytes of aggregated medical data. Smart distributed services are positioned to become a powerful tool for health providers by optimizing medical results, preventing mistakes, relieving overburdened health professionals, improving patient outcomes, and lowering costs.
 
Two approaches to a common healthcare challenge

Let us illustrate the shift in healthcare referred to above by considering two different approaches to a shared healthcare challenge: that of providing people with personalized advice about maintaining and improving their wellbeing in order to ward-off lifestyle related illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes (T2DM). This is important because T2DM is a devastating lifestyle induced condition, which affects millions, costs billions, and in most cases can be prevented by lifestyle changes.
 
Approach 1

One approach is the world’s first nationwide diabetes prevention program, Healthier You, which was launched by NHS England, Public Health England and Diabetes UK in 2016. It is aimed at the 11m people in England thought to have pre-diabetes, which is where blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough for a diagnosis of T2DM. About 5-10% of people with pre-diabetes progress to "full-blown" T2DM in any given year. Healthier You is expected to be fully operational by 2020. Each year thereafter the program is expected to recruit 100,000 people at risk of T2DM. Personal lifestyle coaches will periodically monitor the blood sugar levels of these, and make recommendations about their diets and lifestyles. This is expected to prevent or slow the people with pre-diabetes progressing to full-blown T2DM.
 
Approach 2

The second approach is GymKit and Chatbox. The former is a new feature Apple is expected to add to its watch in late 2017, and the latter is a mobile app developed by Equinox, a New York-based health club chain, for its members.

Gymkit will enable the Apple watch to have seamless connectivity to the overwhelming majority of different kinds of cardiovascular equipment used in most fitness centres. Currently, there are a variety of smartphone apps, which allow gym users to connect to cardiovascular machines, but these are at best patchy. Gymkit is different, and will automatically adjust a user’s personalized needs to any cardiovascular machine without the user having to press a button. Itwill then wirelessly collect a range of data - if on a treadmill: speed, duration, incline, etc., - and combine these data with the user’s heart rate, age, gender, weight and body type to make health-related calculations and recommendations, and wirelessly transmit these to the user.

Chatbox does something similar. Ituses artificial intelligence (AI) to simulate the human voice, which talks to new health club members, encourages them to set personal goals, and sends them messages when they fall short. Further, Chatbox has sensors, which track users while they are in the gym, and suggests ways of improving and extending their personalized workouts. A survey, undertaken by Equinox of its members across 88 of its facilities reported that Chatbox users visited the fitness centres 40% more often than those without the app. This is significant because people who fail to form a habit of physical exercise tend to drop lifestyle goals.

The 2 approaches compared

Healthier You is unlikely to have more than a modest impact on the UK’s diabetes burden because the format it has adopted is like filling a swimming pool with a teaspoon. It would take over 100 years to recruit and counsel the 11m people with pre-diabetes, especially while the prevalence levels of pre-diabetes and T2DM in the UK are increasing.  Successfully changing the diets and lifestyles of large numbers of people requires an understanding of 21st century technologies. Ubiquitous healthcare technologies such as smartphone apps and wearable’s that support lifestyles abound, and have leveraged people's enhanced awareness of themselves and their health. Hence peoples’ large and rapidly growing demands for such devices to track their weight, blood pressure, daily exercise, diet etc. From apps to wearables, healthcare technology lets people feel in control of their health, while potentially providing health professionals with more patient data than ever before.  

The IoT and consumers

There are more than 165,000 healthcare apps currently on the market, there is a rapid growth in wearables, and smartphone penetration in the US and UK has surpassed 80% and 75% respectively. According to a 2017 US survey by Anthem Blue Cross, 70m people in the US use wearable health monitoring devices, 52% of smartphone users gather health information using mobile apps, and 93% of doctors believe mobile apps can improve health. 86% of doctors say wearables increase patient engagement with their own health, and 88% of doctors want patients to monitor their health. 51% of doctors use electronic access to clinical information from other doctors, and 91% of hospitals in the US have moved to electronic patient records (EPR).
 
Notwithstanding, these apps and wearables are rarely configured to aggregate, export and share the data they collect in order to improve outcomes and lower costs. This reduces their utility and value. However, the large and rapid growth of this market on the back of the social media revolution, and the impact it is having on shaping the attitudes and expectations of millions of consumers of healthcare, positions it well as a potential driver of significant change.

 A “minuscule fraction” of what is ultimately possible

According to Roger Kornberg, Professor of Structural Biology at Stanford University, the current capabilities of smart sensors like those used in Apple’sGymKit and Equinox’s Chatbox, “is only a minuscule fraction of what is ultimately possible . . . A sensor attached to a smartphone will enable it to answer any question that we may have about ourselves, and our environment,” says Kornberg. Smart sensors can provide you with a doctor in your pocket, which can be connected to a plethora of other devices that could collect, store, analyze and feedback terabytes of medical information in real time. Kornberg, who won the 2006 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, is excited about the disruptive effect, which smart sensors are having on traditional healthcare systems. This is because they can be connected to almost any medical device and human organ to, “monitor specimens . . . record in real time the health status of individuals,  . . . transmitelectronic signals wirelessly,  . . .  (and) provide responses to any treatment,” says Kornberg. 

Kornberg is engaged in developing sensors with the ability to detect and measure biological signals and data from humans, which can be wirelessly linked to smartphones to transmit the information for analysis, storage and further communication. Kornberg is convinced that, in the near term, we will be able to create a simple and affordable networked device that will, “detectan impending heart attack, in a precise and quantitative manner, before any symptoms”.
 


Potential of sensor technology



The excitement in the development of biosensors

 
Drivers of the IoT and market trends

Partly driving the IoT in healthcare and other industries are the: (i) general availability of affordable broadband Internet, (ii) almost ubiquitous smartphone penetration, (iii) increases in computer processing power, (iv) enhanced networking capabilities, (v) miniaturization, especially of computer chips and cameras, (vi) the digitalization of data, (vii) growth of big data repositories, and (viii) advances in AI and data mining.
 
Market trends suggest substantial growth in the total number of networked smart devices in use. By 2020, when the world’s population is expected to reach 7.6bn, it is projected that there will be between 19 and 50bn IoT-connected devices worldwide, more than 8bn broadband access points, more than 4m IoT jobs, and the number of installed IoT technologies will exceed that of personal computers by a factor of 10.
 
Crisis in primary care is a significant driver of change
 
In addition to these technological drivers, the simultaneous population aging and the shrinking pool of doctors also drives the IoT in healthcare. Increasing numbers of older people presenting with complex comorbidities significantly increases the large and rapidly growing demands on an over-stretched, shrinking population of doctors. This results in a crisis of care.
 
A 2015 Report from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) suggests that there is an 11 to 17% growth in total healthcare demand, of which a growing and aging population is a significant component. Further, the Report suggests that the US could lose 100,000 doctors by 2025, and that primary care physicians will account for 33% of that shortage.

There is a similar crisis in the UK, where trainee GPs are dwindling, young GPs are moving abroad, and experienced GPs are retiring early. According to data from the UK’s General Medical Council (GMC), between 2008 and 2014 an average of nearly 3,000 certificates were issued annually to enable British doctors to work abroad. Currently, there are hundreds of vacancies for GP trainees. Findings from a 2015 British Medical Association (BMA) poll of over 15,000 GPs, found that 34% of respondents plan to retire by 2020 because of high stress levels, unmanageable workloads, and too little time with patients.
 
Interestingly, Brexit is expected to compound the crisis of care in the UK. According to a 2017 General Medical Council survey of more than 2,000 doctors from the EU working in the UK, 60% said they were considering leaving the UK, and, of those, 91% said the UK’s decision to leave the EU was a factor in their considerations. 

 
Changing healthcare ecosystems

These trends help healthcare payers to employ IoT strategies in an attempt to replace traditional healthcare systems, which act when illnesses occur and report services rendered, with value-based healthcare systems focused on outcomes. US payers are leading this transformation. Some payers in the US have employed IoT strategies to convert a number of devices used in various therapeutic pathways into smart devices that collect, aggregate and process terabytes of healthcare data gathered from thousands of healthcare providers, and electronic patient records (EPRs) describing millions of treatments doctors have prescribed to people presenting similar symptoms and disease states. Cognitive computing systems analyse these data and instantaneously identify patterns that doctors cannot. Such systems, although proprietary, are positioned to help reduce the ongoing challenges of inaccurate, late, and delayed diagnoses, which each year cost the US economy some US$750bn and lead to between 40,000 and 80,000 patient deaths.
 
IBM Watson
 
IBM’s supercomputer, Watson is a well-known proprietary system that uses IoT strategies that include a network of smart sensors and databases to assist doctors in various aspects of diagnoses and treatment plans tailored to patients’ individual symptoms, genetics, and medical histories. Watson draws from 600,000 medical evidence reports, 1.5m EPRs, millions of clinical trials, and 2m pages of text from medical journals. A variant, IBM Watson for Oncology, has been designed specifically to help oncologists, and is currently in use at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Also, it is being used in India where there is a shortage of oncologists. The Manipal Hospital Group, India’s third largest healthcare group, which manages about 5,000 beds, and provides comprehensive care to around 2m patients every year, is using Watson for Oncology to support diagnosis and treatment for more than 200,000 cancer patients each year across 16 of its hospitals.
 
In 2016 IBM, made a US$3bn investment designed to increase the alignment of its Watson super cognitive computing with the IoT, and allocated more than US$200m to its global Watson IoT headquarters in Munich. IBM will have over 1,000 Munich-based researchers, engineers, developers and business experts working closely with specific industries, including healthcare, to draw insights from billions of sensors embedded in medical devices, hospital beds, health clinics, wearables and apps in endeavors to develop IoT healthcare solutions.
 
Babylon
 
Using a similar IoT network of smart sensors and databases, Babylon, a UK-based subscription health service start-up, has launched a digital healthcare AI-based app, which offers patients video and text-based consultations with doctors, and is designed to improve medical diagnoses and treatments. Early in 2017, NHS England started a 6-month study to test the app’s efficacy by making it available to 1.2m London residents. The Babylon app is expected to be able to analyse, “hundreds of millions of combinations of symptoms” in real time, while taking into account individualized information of a patient’s genetics, environment, behavior, and biology. Current regulations do not allow the Babylon app to make formal diagnoses, so it is employed to assist doctors by recommending diagnoses and treatment options. Notwithstanding, Ali Parsa, Babylon’s founder and CEO says, "Our scientists have little doubt that our AI will soon diagnose and predict personal health better than doctors”.
 
Market forecasts

Market studies stress the vast and growing economic impact of the IoT on healthcare. Business Insider Intelligence (BII) suggested that the IoT has created nearly US$100bn additional revenue in medical devices alone. It forecasts that cost savings and productivity gains generated through the IoT and subsequent changes will create between US$1.1 and US$2.5trillion in value in the healthcare sector by 2025. In 2016, Grand View Research Inc. projected that the global IoT healthcare market will reach nearly US$410bn by 2022. A 2013 Report from the McKinsey Global Institute on Disruptive Technologies, suggests that the potential total economic impact of IoT will be between US$3 and US$6trillion per year by 2025, the largest of which will be felt in healthcare and manufacturing sectors. Although forecasts differ, there is general agreement that, over the next decade, the IoT is projected to provide substantial economic and healthcare benefits in the way of cost savings, improved outcomes, and efficiency improvements.
  
IoT and MedTech companies

We have briefly described the impact of the IoT on patients, healthcare payers and providers. But what about MedTech companies? They have the capabilities and knowhow to develop and integrate the IoT into their next generation devices. However, MedTech innovations tend to be small improvements to existing product offerings. Data, accumulated from numerous smart medical devices, are enhanced in value once they are merged, aggregated, analyzed and communicated. And herein lies the challenge of data security. Arguably the greater the connectivity between medical devices, the greater the security threat. In 2013 the FDA issued a safety communication regarding cyber security for medical devices and health providers, and recommended that MedTech companies determine appropriate safeguards to reduce the risk of device failure due to cyber-attacks. The cautious modus vivendi of most MedTech companies suggests that, in the near term, a significant proportion will not develop IoT strategies, and this creates a gap in the market.
 
The IoT and new and rising healthcare players

Taking advantage of this market gap is a relatively small group of data-orientated companies, which have started to employ IoT technologies to gain access to healthcare markets by developing specific product offerings, increasing collaborative R&D, and acquiring new data oriented start-ups. For instance, in addition to IBM and Apple mentioned above, Amazon is expected to enter the global pharmaceutical market, which is anticipated to reach over US$1 trillion by 2022. Microsoft has used IoT strategies to build its Microsoft Azure cloud platform to facilitate cloud-based delivery of multiple healthcare services. Google Genomics is using IoT strategies to assist the life science community organise the world’s genomic data and make it accessible by applying the same technologies that power Google Search to securely store petabytes of genomic information, which can be analysed, and shared by life science researchers throughout the world.

Takeaways
 
The powerful social, demographic, technological and economic drivers of healthcare change over the next decade suggest an increasing influence of IoT technologies in a sector not known for radical or innovative change. Research suggests that hundreds of millions of networked medical devices will proliferate globally within the next decade. The potential healthcare benefits to be derived from these are expected to be significant, especially through enhancing preventative and outcome-oriented healthcare while reducing costs. This has to be achieved in a highly regulated environment where concerns of data security are paramount. To reap the potential benefits of the IoT in healthcare, policymakers will have to reconcile the need for IoT regulation with the significant projected benefits of the IoT. Smart technologies require smart management and smart regulation.
 
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  • Healthcare systems throughout the world are in constant crisis
  • Attempts to introduce digital infrastructure to improve the quality of care, efficiency, and patient outcomes have failed
  • Modern healthcare systems were built on the idea that doctors provide healthcare with meaning and power, but this is changing
  • Advances in genetics and molecular science are rapidly eating away at doctors’ discretion and power
  • People are loosing their free will and increasingly being driven by big data strategies
  • An important new book suggests that a biotech-savvy elite will edit people's genomes and control health and healthcare with powerful algorithms, and that people will merge with computers
  • Homo sapiens will evolve into Homo Deus
 
Future healthcare shock
 
This book should be compulsory reading for everyone interested in health and healthcare, especially those grappling with strategic challenges. Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow, by Yuval Harari, a world bestselling author, published in 2016 is not for tacticians responding to their in-trays, but for healthcare strategists planning for the future.

The book is published a year after an OECD report concluded that NHS England is one of the worst healthcare systems in the developed world; hospitals are so short-staffed and under-equipped that people are dying needlessly. The quality of care across key health areas is “poor to mediocre”, obesity levels are “dire”, and the NHS struggles to get even the “basics” right. The UK came 21st out of 23 countries on cervical cancer survival, 20th on breast and bowel cancer survival and 19th on stroke.


Harari pulls together history, philosophy, theology, computer science and biology to produce an important and thought provoking thesis, which has significant implications for the future of health and healthcare. Homo Deus, more than the 2015 OECD Report will make you think.
 
Healthcare’s legacy systems an obstacle for change

While a large and growing universe of consumers regularly use smartphones, cloud computing, and global connectivity to provide them with efficient, high quality, 24-hour banking, education, entertainment, shopping, and dating, healthcare systems have failed to introduce digital support strategies to enhance the quality of care, increase efficiency, and improve patient outcomes.

Why?

The answer is partly due to entrenched legacy systems, and partly because digital support infrastructure is typically beyond the core mission of most healthcare systems. Devi Shetty, cardiac surgeon, founder and CEO of Narayana Health, and philanthropist, laments how digital technologies have, “penetrated every industry in the world except healthcare”, and suggests doctors and the medical community are the biggest obstaclesto change.
 
 
Doctors’ traditional raison d'être is being replaced by algorithms

Notwithstanding, modern medicine has conquered killer infectious diseases, and has successfully transformed them, “from an incomprehensible force of nature into a manageable challenge . . . For the first time in history, more people die today from old age than from infectious diseases,” says Harari.
 
Further, modern healthcare systems were built on the assumption that individual doctors provided healthcare systems with meaning and power. Doctors are free to use their superior knowledge and experience to diagnose and treat patients; their decisions can mean life or death. This endowed doctors and healthcare systems with their monopoly of power and their raison d'être. But such power and influence is receding, and rapidly being replaced by biotechnology and algorithms.

 
Healthcare systems in crisis

This radical change adds to the crisis of healthcare systems, which lack cash, and have a shrinking pool of doctors treating a large and growing number of patients, an increasing proportion of whom are presenting with complicated co-morbidities. Aging equipment in healthcare systems is neither being replaced nor updated, and additionally, there is a dearth of digital infrastructure to support patient care.
  
A symptom of this crisis is the large and increasing rates of misdiagnosis: 15% of all medical cases in developed countries are misdiagnosed, and according to The Journal of Clinical Oncology, a staggering 44% of some types of cancers are misdiagnosed, resulting in millions of people suffering unnecessarily, thousands dying needlessly, and billions of dollars being wasted. Doing more of the same will not dent this crisis.
 
Computers replacing doctors
 
As the demand for healthcare increases, healthcare costs escalate, and the supply of doctor’s decrease, so big data strategies and complex algorithms, which in seconds are capable of analysing and transforming terabytes of electronic healthcare data into clinically relevant medical opinions, are being introduced.
 
Such digital infrastructure erodes the status of doctors who no longer are expected solely to rely on their individual knowledge and experience to diagnose and treat patients. Today, doctors have access to powerful cognitive computing systems that understand, reason, learn, and do more than we ever thought possible. Such computers provide doctors almost instantaneous clinical recommendations deduced from the collective knowledge gathered from thousands of healthcare systems, billions of patient records, and millions of treatments other doctors have prescribed to people presenting similar symptoms and disease states. Unlike doctors, these computers never wear out, and can work 24-7, 365 days a year.
 
The train has left the station

One example is IBM’s Watson, which is able to read 40 million medical documents in 15 seconds, understand complex medical questions, and identify and present evidence based solutions and treatment options. Despite the resistance of doctors and the medical establishment the substitution of biotechnology and algorithms for doctors is occurring in healthcare systems throughout the world, and cannot be stopped. “The train is again pulling out of the station . . . . Those who miss it will never get a second chance”. For healthcare systems to survive and prosper in the 21st century is to understand and embrace “the powers of biotechnology and algorithms”. People and organizations that fail to do this will not survive, says Harari.
 
The impact of evolutionary science on healthcare systems

Roger Kornberg, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University who won the 2006 Nobel Prize in chemistry, "for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription", describes how human genome sequencing and genomics have fundamentally changed the way healthcare is organized and delivered. “Genomic sequencing enables us to identify every component of the body responsible for all life processes. In particular, it enables the identification of components, which are either defective or whose activity we may wish to edit in order to improve a medical condition,” says Kornberg.



 
The new world of ‘dataism’

Harari’s “new world” describes some of the implications of Kornberg’s discoveries, and suggests that evolutionary science is rapidly eroding doctors’ discretion and freewill, which are the foundation stones of modern healthcare systems and central to a doctors’ modus vivendi. Because evolutionary science has been programmed by millennia of development, our actions tend to be either predetermined or random. This results in the uncoupling of intelligence from consciousness and the “new world” as data-driven transformation, which Harari suggests is just beginning, and there is little chance of stopping it.
 
Over the past 50 years scientific successes have built complex networks that increasingly treat human beings as units of information, rather than individuals with free will. We have built big-data processing networks, which know our feelings better than we know them ourselves. Evolutionary science teaches us that, in one sense, we do not have the degree of free will we once thought. In fact, we are better understood as data-processing machines: algorithms. By manipulating data, scientists such as Kornberg, have demonstrated that we can exercise mastery over creation and destruction. The challenge is that other algorithms we have built and embedded in big data networks owned by organizations can manipulate data far more efficiently than we can as individuals. This is what Harari means by the “uncoupling” of intelligence and consciousness.
 
We are giving away our most valuable assets for nothing

Harari is not a technological determinist: he describes possibilities rather than make predictions. His thesis suggests that because of the dearth of leadership in the modern world, and the fact that our individual free-will is being replaced by data processors, we become dough for the Silicon Valley “Gods” to shape.
 
Just as African chiefs in the 19th Century gave away vast swathes of valuable land, rich in minerals, to imperialist businessmen such as Cecil Rhodes, for a handful of beads; so today, we are giving away our most valuable possessions  - vast amounts of personal data - to the new “Gods” of Silicon Valley: Amazon, Facebook, and Google for free. Amazon uses these data to tell us what books we like, and Facebook and Google use them to tell us which partner is best suited for us. Increasingly, big-data and powerful computers, rather than the individual opinion of doctors, drive the most important decisions we take about our health and wellbeing. Healthcare systems will cede jobs and decisions to machines and algorithms, says Harari.
 
Takeaways

For the time being, because of the entrenched legacy systems, health providers will continue to pay homage to our individuality and unique needs. However, in order to treat people effectively healthcare systems will need to “break us up into biochemical subsystems”, and permanently monitor each subgroup with powerful algorithms. Healthcare systems that do not understand and embrace this new world will perish. Only a relatively few early adopters will reap the rewards of the new technologies. The new elite will commandeer evolution with ‘intelligent’ design, edit peoples’ genomes, and eventually merge individuals with machines. Thus, according to Harari, a new elite caste of Homo sapiens will evolve into Homo Deus. In this brave new world, only the new “Gods”, with access to the ultimate source of health and wellbeing will survive, while the rest of mankind will be left behind.

Harari does not believe this new health world is inevitable, but implies that, in the absence of effective leadership, it is most likely to happen.

 
 
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The Future of Healthcare
 
Fahad Aziz
Co-founder of Caremerge, which provides comprehensive web and mobile communications and care-coordination solutions for senior living communities. Fahad is the author of several technical papers, and the recipient of Pakistan’s prestigious Performance Excellence Award.
 
  • How will machine learning, virtual reality, the Human Genome Project, and the Internet of things change healthcare?
  • Will technology result in a healthier future full of empowered patients?
  • Will big data strategies help physicians perform their jobs better?
  • Will 3D printing be used to replace tissue and organs?
  • Will VR allow scientists to experience physical and psychological challenges rather than observe them?

 
Living in Silicon Valley I have a front row seat to the in technology poised to reshape the future of humanity. Machine learning, Virtual Reality, the Human Genome Project and the Internet of things will undoubtedly impact our lives in general, but they can also have a major impact on the Healthcare industry in particular.

To visualize the future of healthcare, I took a look at what’s trending in Silicon Valley and applied them to the healthcare industry. If the possibilities seem farfetched today, remember the iPhone is less than a decade old and has spawned countless industries that have shaped our daily existence, and will continue to do so. Technology moves fast and these four trends can potentially disrupt all aspects healthcare.

Machine learning
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not new to the technology world, but with machine learning, AI has taken on an open-ended form rife with endless opportunities for technology in general and healthcare in particular.

Machine learning enables computers to identify patterns and observe behaviors based on empirical data, and use all that to ‘learn’. In other words, machine learning is a set of self-learning algorithms that can eventually become smarter than any human being on this planet.

In 2012, Vinod Khosla, an American businessman and a co-founder of Sun Microsytems, predicted that in time, “Technology will replace 80% of what doctors do”; sparking outrage and umbrage within the healthcare industry. Physicians overlooked what Khosla was really saying: that big data, properly harnessed and utilized, had the potential to help physicians perform their jobs better. Farfetched at the time, big data and machine learning have come far enough in just four years to provide levity to Khasla’s argument.

When given access to a trillion gigabytes of patient data collected from devices, electronic health records (EHRs), laboratories, and DNA sequencing - alongside surrounding factors such as weather, geo-location, and viral outbursts - computers learn quickly, and they learn everything. The depth of information provided at such a scale suggests patients will not need to consult with various specialities to figure out what’s ailing them in the future. Instead, consolidated data will create and provide a fully coordinated treatment plan.

If you are thinking this sounds crazy, consider the fact that IBM acquired Truven Health for $2.6 Billion in early 2016. Truven delivers information, analytic tools, research, and services to the healthcare industry, and gives IBM access to data of some 200 million patients to feed Watson, which is IBM’s machine learning product that is a powerful question answering computer system capable of answering questions posed by natural language.

I can only imagine what Watson will offer after digesting this massive data, but one thing is for sure: the result is nothing but good news for patients and their care plans.

The Internet of things
Gartner, a US IT research and advisory firm, estimates six billion devices will be “connected” by 2020; collecting data for consumption, analytics and a whole lot more.

Healthcare has historically been a sucker for devices, embracing hardware that captures data, provides diagnostics and even treats patients. Previously, these devices have been in use only at hospitals and other healthcare locations, but in the future this technology has the potential to become a part of every single home; marking a new era in care.


How can the NHS innovate? - Mike Farrar, former NHS Confederation CEO

In the future, doctor’s visits will begin before we even head out the door. Our vitals will be captured at home and sent to our doctor. In some cases, we may even receive treatment in the comfort of our home. Further, once treatment begins, a real-time feed of our vitals and conditions will be shared and analyzed automatically via set protocols, which will trigger alerts if our health declines and requires a change in treatment.
 
The Internet of things has implications elsewhere for the healthcare industry. Pharmaceutical research could bid farewell to clinical trials once they can access millions of patients’ data to accurately analyze behaviors and outcomes.

Challenges facing immunizations could also be solved using simple, digitized solutions. Currently, vaccinations are rendered ineffective by temperature changes during their transport; a simple tracking device with a thermometer could solve that problem. Similar challenges with manufacturing, delivery and tracking of vaccination can also be digitized to make the immunization programs successful globally.

Last but not least, I foresee nano devices embedded within the human body to monitor glucose, blood pressure, temperature, and more; to allow for swifter, more effective decisions to be made so treatments can begin as soon as needed, significantly increasing positive outcomes.

The Human Genome Project
One of the greatest breakthroughs in healthcare this last decade was decoding the human genome to understand the DNA sequencing. It took over 10 years and a staggering US$2.7bn to crack the code of one human being. Just a decade later, it takes US$1,500 and a couple of hours to run the genome for any person.

The more we learn about DNA and its sequencing, the more accurately we can treat patients for their illnesses. There will be no guesswork involved, instead, a complete technical report will show exactly what went wrong since last time, and what can be done to fix it.

The future is closer than we think. I suspect human genome machines will be deployed at healthcare locations in the near term. The appetite for this type of information will grow, and eventually, we may live in an age where small genome devices are installed under your sink or inside your toilet seat to analyze changes in your DNA sequencing several times a day.

Today, researchers in Europe are using 3D printers and DNA sequencing to create human body parts that can potentially replace limbs or ailing organs. Prototypes already exist. DNA sequencing will help people take more control over their bodies, allowing them to make better informed decisions about their lifestyle, illnesses and treatments. This means that doctors’ roles will change, potentially allowing for a complete shift in the healthcare paradigm.

Virtual reality in healthcare
Mark Zuckerberg, chairman, CEO and co-founder of Facebook, takes every opportunity he can to promote his latest US$2bn acquisition, Oculus VR, an American virtual reality company, whose product, Oculus Rift, is a virtual reality (VR) headset. I had the opportunity to try Oculus Rift, and was blown away. Market analysts say Zuckerberg was crazy to bet on this, but I know he has discovered a platform with the potential to be larger than Facebook.

Virtual reality transports you into another world by creating an artificial environment, deceiving your sense of sight and touch, so your mind believes you are part of that environment. At a recent Aging2.0 conference, I watched a man in his 30s struggle to walk while wearing an Oculus Rift headset. A moment after putting it on he experienced the physical shortcomings of someone in there 80s. These types of experiences open up a new world for researchers by providing them with the ability to directly experience physical and psychological challenges rather than rely on observations.


Doctors' resistance to change - Devi Shetty,  founder of Narayana Hrudayala, Bangalore, India

The environment created by VR is artificial and programmed, at least for now. But fast forward three to four years, and you will likely be in a real environment. Consider this: a doctor could be transported to a hospital in Kenya while sitting in the relative comfort of his clinic in San Francisco. VR would allow the user to move around and interact with people enabling participation in treatments, research or even surgery.

I suspect Zuckerberg will combine social networking and virtual reality, allowing people from any part of the world to meet up with one another, to visit places they have previously only dreamed of, and go on adventures their body would never allow in the real world.

In healthcare, innovators are already leveraging VR for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism, social cognition, meditation, and help with exposure therapy and surgical training. And this is just the beginning.
 
Takeaways
The day is fast approaching when I will be able to virtually go to hospital to meet with doctors and specialists, share my vitals through various devices and a video camera to gain assessment and treatment plans from the comfort of my own home.

Healthcare information and management systems (HIMSS) have never disappointed me in terms of their participation and size, and I am hopeful that innovations will continue to shock, whispering promises of a healthier future full of empowered patients.

 
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