Can technology cure our health service ills?

HealthXL Global Gathering in Dublin hears about the role technology could play in the future of health services

The HealthXL teams: Ville Tapani, Nursebuddy; Luis Poyatos, Evinance; Denis Abrams, myMedScore; Issac McSui, Antti Sarela, goACT; Seth Akumani, ClaimSync; Niranjan Bidargabdi, goACT; Michael Mitchell SenseofSkin. Front row seated: Ben Picard, myMedScore; Joonatan Boltti, Nursebuddy; and Chad Armstrong, Evinance

The HealthXL teams: Ville Tapani, Nursebuddy; Luis Poyatos, Evinance; Denis Abrams, myMedScore; Issac McSui, Antti Sarela, goACT; Seth Akumani, ClaimSync; Niranjan Bidargabdi, goACT; Michael Mitchell SenseofSkin. Front row seated: Ben Picard, myMedScore; Joonatan Boltti, Nursebuddy; and Chad Armstrong, Evinance

 

The future of healthcare may not revolve around increased pressure on health systems or more diverse medication for patients, but on the increased synergy between health and technology.

Today’s HealthXL Global Gathering event in Dublin sees the culmination of three months mentoring for a number of digital health start-ups and the coming together of some of the greatest advocates of the future of human health.

HealthXL is an accelerator programme which sees the mentoring of start-ups from all over the world. The programme is sponsored by some of the biggest industry names – IBM, Novartis, GSK and Silicon Valley Bank as well as Enterprise Ireland. Finalists have currently received €15,000 funding each.

“Digital health is not just about making minor changes. These companies are looking at finding solutions to really big problems,” says Martin Kelly, founding partner of HealthXL and IBM Venture Capital partner.

John Nosta is a leading global exponent of digital health. He is author of Health Critical in Forbes, one of the first chosen testers of Google Glass, founder of health communications group NOSTALAB and is a speaker at HealthXL.

Nosta says that digital health is not about a computer, a physician or a pharmaceutical tablet but rather about “evolving changes in medicine that include both the physician and the patient”.


Rapid advances
He says digital health is line having a “check engine light” for the body. “We will see in the future that the patient will be empowered through what has become known as the quantified-self movement [the ability to track, record and share one’s life]. Physicians will also be empowered through a variety of new diagnostic tools,” he says.

Digital health is often spoken of futuristically, but the body scanners of Star Trek are already here. US company Scanadu has produced a small sensor which measures a variety of clinical parameters to monitor health, AliveCor is an ECG machine that attaches to a patient’s iPhone and 23andme have produced a personal DNA testing kit used by more than 200,000 people which hooks up to a database with over 100 million data-points providing information on genetic diseases and ancestral traits.

Ten years ago we might not have believed the rapid advances mobile phone technology would undergo and similarly John Nosta says that “the velocity of change is such that we can no longer look to the future as beyond our grasp”.

“There is a convergence of thinkers, of clinicians, of scientists, of data scientists – a cauldron of innovation driven by synergistic activity.”

Clinicians may fear that their jobs will be taken over by Dr Watson, the IBM computer which beat humans at Jeopardy and which identifies cancers at an insanely efficient rate through its ability to process vast amounts of data.

“The car put blacksmiths out of business, but the art of transportation was enhanced,” says Nosta. “We are going to advance the art of medicine. It’s not about making doctors obsolete – the human touch is, in essence, part of the human reality.”

The idea that healthcare is “broken” is a global issue, with rising costs and increases in diabetes, cancer and obesity. “There is a social imperative with regard to evolving healthcare needs on a global scale,” says Nosta.

Digital health may allow people to proactively, rather than reactively, manage their health, so while it may not ostensibly be about illness prevention, the knock-on effect may be just that.


Personal records
The linchpin of many emerging digital health applications is the smartphone. If an ultrasound probe costing €5,000 can be attached to a smartphone which can send images and receive diagnosis via the internet, there are huge implications for the future of healthcare, particularly in parts of the developing world with less access to traditional healthcare facilities.

The take-up of this “digital house call” whereby a physician can diagnose and prescribe treatment online may see varying take-up patterns because of fundamental societal differences.

While increased digitalisation of personal records may smack of “Big Brother” to many, the ability to measure and record health continuously, rather than periodically, for example blood sugar levels in diabetics, will certainly result in better health management.

Big Data may also allow for more tailored healthcare. “Right now, medicine is usually practised in aggregate,” says Nosta. “Decisions that physicians make are usually based on large medical trials where averages determine the therapeutic decision. Digital health may put a spin on that where individualised data or analyses can help tailor a therapy to be more specific.”

There is currently a hotbed of activity around digital health in the US, London and Dublin, but applicants to the HealthXL programme have come from all over – Canada, Ghana, Finland, Ireland and Australia.

While many of the proponents of digital health say that their products are about finding solutions for both clinician and patient, there’s no doubt money to be made in this space.


Extensive investment
VC funding in the sphere rose from $968 million in 2011 to $1,413 million in 2012 in the US and multinationals such as Nike, GSK and IBM and philanthropic organisations are taking note.

John Scully, former Apple CEO, says that he believes the digital health movement will be bigger than the personal computer movement and has invested extensively in the area. IBM Watson and Qualcomm Health Management have also made great strides in the area.

In the words of John Nosta, “It’s fair to say that the toothpaste is out of its tube and it’s not going back.”


There are a limited number of tickets still available for today’s HealthXL event. See http://healthxlglobalgathering2013.event brite.com/#

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