Will tech democratise access to quality healthcare?

Neil Ballinger, head of EMEA sales at EU Automation, explains how greater access to quality healthcare can come from medical data and AI

Traditionally, the information flow in healthcare has been hierarchical and monodirectional – from physician to patient. However, thanks to the digitalisation of patients’ health records, medical data is now circulating more freely and in greater amount. Medical information extracted from big data is already used in a variety of AI-based applications that can facilitate access to quality healthcare for a growing number of people.

Until recently, healthcare used to function as a closed ecosystem, with medical practitioners acting as the gatekeepers of information. However, according to the Stanford Medicine 2018 Health Trends Report, the digital transformation that is revolutionising all industries is impacting healthcare as well, allowing patients to engage in more complex forms of information sharing.

For example, patients can now consult the websites of research institutes or health organisations to get accurate information and stay up-to-date with the latest discoveries, or can join online forums to get support from specialists and people suffering of their same condition. Moreover, patients can take charge of their own healthcare with the help of digital technologies, from smartwatches to IoT-connected insulin pumps.

Patients, armed with data, technology and access to expertise, demand treatment options that respond to their specific needs and that can be administered where and how it is most convenient for them. In response, industry players are developing solutions that will allow more people to have access to quality healthcare. Let’s see some examples.

Projects fueled by big data

The digitalisation of patients’ health records has generated an amount of data that can’t possibly be interpreted by a single physician. Luckily, recent developments in data analysis and artificial intelligence are taking medical knowledge from a human to a digital scale.

The size of the AI health market is expected to reach $6.6 billion by 2021, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 40%. This flood of medical data has supported the development of increasingly sophisticated algorithms, that can analyse information with unprecedented accuracy.

For example, image recognition algorithms can now process hundreds of thousands of images, such as x-ray scans or images of skin conditions, and reach a correct diagnosis in a matter of seconds. Thanks to deep learning, as algorithms continue to work, they will become more and more accurate.

In some cases, algorithms have already proven to be faster and more precise than a human specialist in providing a diagnosis. For example, in 2017 Stanford developed an AI-algorithm for radiology than can reliably analyse chest X-rays to detect more than a dozen lung diseases. The algorithm has shown to outperform expert radiologists in diagnosing pneumonia, being faster and more accurate.

Another project at the forefront of digital healthcare is the Apple Heart Study, a partnership between Apple and Stanford to use data from Apple Watch to identify irregularities in heart rhythm that could signal a dangerous condition, such as atrial fibrillation, a leading cause of stroke.

These AI-based applications will allow physicians to monitor and diagnose a growing number of people, reducing waiting times for specialist appointments while also increasing accuracy.

Blockchain

The advantages of data digitalisation can be further amplified by blockchain technology. Sometimes patients are hesitant in changing doctors or consulting a specialist, because of the hassle of transferring their files and having to explain their medical history all over again.

The result is that patients might decide to stay with the same doctor because it is more convenient, not necessarily because this is the best specialist for their condition. If they do decide to switch to a different healthcare provider, they could omit some important information in their medical history or bring with them incomplete medical records. Blockchain technology can provide access to the complete medical history of a patient, saving time and allowing for more accurate diagnosis and treatment. This creates access to quality healthcare.

Blockchain can also improve collaboration among different specialists, who can work together on complex cases, regardless of where they are located. Specialists could have easy access to a patient’s records through a secure system that all parties are using, and contribute with their own unique expertise to develop a treatment plan.

Virtual caregivers

In developed countries, advances in healthcare have led to a longer life expectancy than in the past. This is good news, but it also means that our society is dealing with an increasingly older population. The World Health Organisation reported that by 2050, one out of five adults will be 60 or older.

The demand for caregivers is going to skyrocket in the near future, but the sad reality is that these services are not available to everyone. According to the World Economic Forum, living in an assisted suite costs an average of $48,000, while employing a full-time in-home caregiver can cost up to four times as much. There is also a massive shortage of caregivers, given that this is a demanding career that usually doesn’t pay well.

Technology can help level the playing field by providing virtual caregivers that can monitor elderly patients. For example, Electronic Caregiver has developed Addison, a 3D animated nurse designed to interact with the elderly and chronically ill. Addison is displayed on monitors placed throughout the patient’s home and can carry out a simple two-way conversation.

Virtual caregivers like Addison can monitor patients’ data such as blood pressure, pulse and glucose levels. They can also remind patients to take their medications, demonstrate rehab exercises, and alert a relative or a health care provider if they notice signs of health decline or if no movement is detected in the house for a certain period of time.

These virtual assistants are substantially cheaper than a full-time in-house nurse and, being minimally invasive, can be well tolerated even by people who might resist the constant presence of a human caregiver.

Patients are demanding a more personalised healthcare experience that takes into account not only their condition, but also their personal needs, such as the necessity to stick within a budget or receive specialist advice while living in a remote location. Luckily, digital technology seems up to the challenge.

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