Technology firms at the pulse of online healthcare needs

The web has revolutionised the music industry and the media. Could it do the same to healthcare?

The internet has radically changed the old music industry model, arguably for the better. Likewise, traditional print media has begrudgingly reinvented itself, for the better. Could the web do the same for healthcare? Well, yes and no.

As much as we in The Irish Times believe our opinions to be more valuable than some no name blogger who offers his highfalutin views online for nothing, the same comparison could not be made between anonymous online medical advice versus visiting a medically trained doctor. Online healthcare providers will always be limited by their inability to physically interact with patients.

However, that doesn't mean a lot of common healthcare needs couldn't be dealt with remotely. We already have online medical services – both of the credible and quack variety. Plus if you want to get Viagra, sleeping tablets, antidepressants, or a variety of other, more extreme drugs, the web will find a way to help you self-medicate; Caveat Emptor being the order of the day.

You can also get professional advice and reliable prescriptions for some conditions from the likes of Ireland’s Lloyds Online Doctor service.

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But what are the chances of a "Napster for the Health Care Industry" as the author of online financial column Diary of A Rogue Economist, Bill Bonner, put it? He says: "Most people do not have rare health problems; they have the kinds of problems most people have.

“These problems can be fingered in just a few questions . . . tested with a few additional questions . . . instantly assigned probability scores for the accuracy of the diagnosis . . . and given additional probabilities for the effect of suggested treatments.

“These diagnostic software systems could be open source (meaning there would be universal access by way of a free licence to the source code). This means they could be improved by an army of software developers all over the world. And they could be updated and deepened, second by second, by doctors and patients . . . to record, recall and deliver far more information than a doctor alone ever could.

Taking charge

“After pointing to likely problems, such software could produce thousands of pages of documents, histories, studies, science, articles and so forth – including dissenting opinions and alternative recommendations – allowing the patient to become as much of an authority on his illness as he chose to be . . . and to take as much charge of his treatment as he wished to.

[ . . .] “Where necessary, questions could be easily enhanced by visual scans and more objective tests. Complications, confusions and uncertainty could also be easily flagged for further study or more traditional medical treatment.

“Patients would have no obligation to use this new service. Nor would they be limited to it. It would be a cheap and easy alternative, at a fraction of today’s prices.”

Bonner’s medical “Napster” could never replace a real doctor. But in theory such a service could save us all a lot of time and money. Its realisation would depend as much on the skills of a tech wizard as it would on some renegade medic hoping to shake things up.

Go-to place

“The internet permits new industries to flourish,” says Bonner. “We can’t know exactly what shape they will take. I imagine a brand-name company, like

Apple

, establishing itself as the go-to place for healthcare. But something like Bitcoin could provide another model – that is, a distributed system with no company backing. The hitch, as with Bitcoin, is the interface between the world of information and the physical world of medications and treatments.”

Provided legitimately or illegitimately, how possible is it? "For lots of reasons a general purpose, algorithmic medical diagnosis system would be very challenging," says Prof Barry Smyth, chief executive of the insight centre for data analytics at UCD. "Most artificial intelligence (AI) systems have proven to be very brittle and require a massive amount of structured knowledge and data.

"Companies like Apple, Nike etc are monitoring health and wellness – as in collecting data – but are far from using this data for insightful diagnoses or interventions."

Existing manned online medical services, such as Lloyds Online Medical Service, are limited in terms of what they can treat. Still, managing director Stephen Bourke believes there is a revolution coming in both online and remote healthcare.

Sensors “The technology is there, particularly due to the ubiquity of smartphones, to provide a whole host of services remotely,” he says. “Increasingly sophisticated sensors, as well as breath and sweat analysis procedures, can all provide the necessary information remotely to make credible diagnoses. But for innovators, the legislation would also need to be there in order to provide new healthcare technologies. Right now there isn’t even a dialogue around this.

“Apple will definitely be getting into the healthcare industry. It will be interesting to see just how quickly, given their size and influence, they can change things on a legislative level.

“Medicine is still seen as this black box, where you must go to see a professional who has completed his/her requisite hours of training.

"But Tesco in the UK have recently launched a HIV-testing kit. You can pick one up with your groceries, go home do a prick on your finger, and within 20 minutes you'll have a relatively accurate reading.

“This is the way forward.”