The Digital Health Hope: Transforming Outcomes in Health
This is part one of RealClearHealth's five-part series: The Digital Health Hope. Each Friday, Dr. Kevin Campbell will explore the world of potential that digital health offers.
There are more than 50 petabytes of data in the health care realm today. Analysis and the creative use of big data may likely hold the answers to solving many public health problems and curing chronic disease.
Today, new technologies are rapidly being developed for the collection of biometric data directly from patients. Digital health has become the new frontier in medicine and billions of dollars are being invested every year by both government agencies as well as the private sector. Emerging digital health tools collect and archive big data and provide opportunities for researchers to ask important questions that will likely lead to the development of new and improved treatments.
Emerging Digital Health Tools
The field of digital health is rapidly expanding: Nearly $150 billion of funding deals were closed in the first quarter of 2017. The venture capital firm Digitalis launched a $100 million dollar health fund in January 2017 focusing on innovation in health care with an eye towards leveraging technology to solve human health problems. Start-up companies such as AliveCor, makers of a smartphone ECG, have raised $30 million dollars and partnered with Mayo Clinic and Omron in order to better integrate.
The race to fund digital health care companies, tools and strategies has led to the emergence of a large number of new innovations. Each of these innovations are singularly focused at generating data that can be used to better treat patients and improve outcomes. Every single day, we are seeing science fiction becoming science fact. While there are literally hundreds of new tools in development, a few stand out above the rest.
Top Digital Tools that are Most Likely to Impact Health Care and Generate Big Data
These technologies are comprised of wearable or accessory devices designed specifically for the health care consumer. With wearable technology, learning more about yourself has not only become high-tech but also real-time. These devices detect biometrics and collect health care data and can provide instantaneous feedback. In 2016, $320 million dollars were invested in devices that range from the Alive Cor Smartphone ECG to running shoes and workout gear. This sector is rapidly evolving with hundreds of new devices being produced every single year. Many of these new inventions require FDA clearance as they are considered a medical device based on their functionality while others are simply trackers and do not require FDA oversight.
Medical applications directed at consumers are becoming even more commonplace. According to a survey conducted by eClinicalWorks, 89 percent of physicians would be likely to recommend a mobile health app to a patient and 93 percent of these physicians strongly believed that these apps have a positive impact on patient outcomes. These applications can help track calories consumed or burned, blood sugars, blood pressure or other important biological data. These apps engage patients and make the “quantified self” a potential reality for all health care consumers. The use of applications will better engage patients and improve outcomes
3. Smart Tattoos
In 2016, a collaboration between Microsoft and the MIT Media Lab produced the first “smart tattoos.” Called DuoSkin, this places a touch pad on our skin—connecting Bluetooth would allow for interaction between multiple devices including medical products such as insulin pumps. In addition, the tattoo can send the collected biometric data to a smartphone for storage and will allow the data to be shared with health care providers during a doctor’s visit. Current iterations of smart tattoos contain tiny electrodes which can measure several important biometrics including the pH level on the wearer’s skin, detect minerals like potassium, magnesium and sodium and some can even register blood oxygen levels—just to name a few. The medical applications are limitless and these devices could significantly impact the way we care for diabetes for example by eliminating the need for multiple blood sugar checks throughout the day.
4. Subcutaneous Implants (under the skin)
Home monitoring of implanted devices and other biometrics have emerged as key components of medical care in the last decade. Now, physicians are able to monitor pacemakers and Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillators (ICDs) remotely via home monitoring systems. This type of remote monitoring has been shown to improve outcomes, reduce hospitalizations and streamline care. Other subcutaneous implants can assess heart rhythm disorders over a period of three to four years and provide physicians with important diagnostic information that may help health care providers better adjust medications and prescribe treatments.
Six Ways Big Data Will Transform Health Care
1. Support Research—Genomics
Big data allows for real analytics to be performed on the human genome for the very first time. The sheer volume of data contained in the genome is staggering—a typical human genome contains 20,000 genes made up of millions of DNA base pairs. Just mapping the genome requires hundreds of gigabytes of data and tracking gene interactions may multiply that number to hundreds of petabytes of data. Big data analytics will provide us with a greater understanding of the human genome and will help researchers get a better idea of what may happen to all of us in the future. Finally, big data in the genetics realm also may provide us more insight into how genes work to make us who we are.
2. Transform Data Into Information
Data by itself is simply facts and figures—or rather “bits” of information. When data is processed, analyzed and organized in a way that provides insight and makes the data useful, it then becomes information. Information, in essence, provides context for data. By using big data to better understand health care systems and health care problems, we will be able to improve communication and enhance care by making care more individualized and efficient.
3. Promote Patient Engagement and Self Care
We know that engaged patients have better outcomes. When a patient takes ownership in the management of his or her own disease process, outcomes improve. Big data can be a great way to educate the public, improve awareness and “help us take care of us”. Through advanced analytics, we may be able to gain better insights at the community level. Once we are able to determine who is an “influencer” in a particular community, we may be able to better change behavior by engaging the influencer in his or her own local language.
4. Make Doctors More Efficient
Currently, medicine is incredibly inefficient. Electronic Medical Record (EMR) systems are not portable and different vendors do not communicate well with one another. Big data has the potential to allow doctors to collaborate quickly and easily with one another and better personalize and individualize treatments for each patient. Real-time consultations and data analytics may provide better access to advanced treatments and potentially higher cure rates among chronically ill patients.
5. Enhance Treatments and Cure Disease
While the use of big data may not cure cancer today, the continued work and insights that advanced analytics provide are likely to provide clues to new therapies in the future. Analysis of large data sets may raise questions and ultimately spur new areas of research in areas that have not yet been explored.
The next step in digital and big data will be to begin to foster more cooperation among researchers. Currently, there is very little sharing of data and information—until the medical industry begins to share what we know, advancements will continue to come quite slowly. We can no longer afford to allow independent researchers; institutions and companies to remain in their own isolated cocoons. Data must be available to anyone who is interested in exploring a subject—only then will we begin to really reap the benefits that digital and big data have to offer. Big Data will likely change the landscape of medicine—the way we evaluate disease and treat patients will inevitably change. Will this change be good or bad? Should the having so much personal data out there be something to be scared of? I’ll explore that next week.
Dr. Kevin Campbell is an internationally recognized Cardiologist and On Air Television Medical, Health and Wellness expert. He appears regularly on Fox News, Fox Business, CBS and many other national media outlets. A pioneer of the use of social media and digital technologies in healthcare, Dr. Campbell also is an accomplished journalist, blogger and the author of two books.
Dr. Campbell completed his Cardiovascular Fellowship training at Duke University and has practiced medicine for more than 17 years.