Technology likes to show off. It’s easy to notice when the latest innovation has arrived because when technology gets better, we notice. In education-tech, we heralded the arrival of the SMART Board and interactive learning. Government-tech showed off its ability with advanced NSA surveillance. Every time you see a stunning new Pixar movie, you’re experiencing some of the best of entertainment-tech.
But how far have we advanced in the health-tech sector? Think about the last time you visited your doctor. It probably looked pretty similar to the way it looked back when you were excited to get that sick day home from school. You signed in on a clipboard chained to the front desk, filled out your brick of paperwork on another clipboard, and followed the nurse down the hall to the room where she hung the clipboard on the door. The world must have been lawless chaos before the clipboard was invented.
So aside from a few extra computers and iPads at your doctor’s office, where are we seeing technology affect positive change in health care? The changes I’m excited about are a little behind the scenes. Let’s talk about a couple of them.
Big Data and personalized medicine
Everyone knows the marketing world loves to collect data about us. They love to know our preferences and our patterns. It helps them sell the right stuff to the right people. By drawing from a huge pool of data, marketers are able to make very informed decisions. This is Big Data in the commercial world.
Big Data in health care is trying to improve your health with that same kind of insight—but with fewer pop-up ads. For a long time, the problem was the data on that clipboard needed to be converted into digital information. In the past 6 years, widespread adoption of electronic medical records (EMR) has provided enough digital medical data to benefit from data analysis. It went from data to Big Data.
It’s easy to see how evidence-based medicine is immediately bolstered by Big Data: the pool of available evidence instantly becomes much larger. Doctors now can electronically compare patients’ conditions to similar patients and their respective health outcomes. This leads to better diagnoses and better treatment plans because you’re working with better intel. Your doctor’s perspective is no longer limited to what they’re most familiar with. Medical decisions can be more tailored and less standardized. This is the gateway to personalized medicine.
Personalized medicine is still taking shape but has the capacity to really change healthcare delivery. A key tenet of personalized medicine is that the genetic information inside each of us maps out our susceptibility to most diseases. Researchers have begun recording the specific genes of their patients, aka “sequencing their genomes.” Combine this genetic info with a personal narrative (diet, behaviors, health history, traumas) and a map legend begins to be formed.
What exactly do all these patients with this very specific type of cancer have in common? What drugs do they respond best to? Big Data could answer this.
But is data analysis really the highest level of general development for health-tech? Is this really state-of-the-art? You’d be surprised. These are huge amounts of data we’re talking about.
The Washington Post estimates that the current amount of human genomic data in existence is around 25 petabytes. That’s 2,500 times more data than every piece of text in the Library of Congress. Within the next decade, it’s estimated that genomic data will take up more space than every video currently stored on YouTube. This is all raw data that has to be extracted, curated, compressed, stored, and ultimately made sense of. Only recently has the technology — the algorithms, the processors, the bandwidth — reached a benchmark that could carry such a weight.
It isn’t cheap either. But innovation has dramatically lowered the cost. During his battle with pancreatic cancer, Steve Jobs had the genome of his tumor sequenced multiple times to help decide which drug therapy to use. According to the New York Times, each sequence cost him $100,000. A decade earlier, in 2001, it would have cost $100 million. Now, just 4 years after his death, it costs barely over $1,000. That is a remarkable cost reduction resulting purely from an improvement in technology.
Not only is DNA sequencing more efficient and cost-effective than ever before, but it’s also becoming more share-friendly. Fast Company reports that just last month the FDA released a website, precision.fda.org, that makes it easier for researchers to explore the existing community-based genomic information. This DNA library makes it easy for scientists to collaborate with each other, share genomes they’ve sequenced, and build off of each other’s discoveries. This socialization of genomic research, combined with the power of Big Data, is important. Some experts believe it’s the way we’re going to cure the big diseases.
So, we know Big Data analytics has the power to radically personalize medicine. But how are these broad concept macro-innovations being fueled on the ground level?
In the past five years, we’ve seen a huge rise in the popularity of activity trackers. There’s a good chance you use something like a Fitbit, and if not you definitely know 10 people who do. Such rapid adoption has encouraged companies and their engineers to innovate and make products that give us more and more insight on our health metrics and help us live healthier lives.
But what about the really chronically sick? Sensor technology has an even bigger opportunity to help these individuals. In August, Y Combinator—a Silicon Valley incubator for startup companies—released their “Request for Startups” report. In their health care section they state:
Health care in the United States is badly broken. We are getting close to spending 20 percent of our GDP on healthcare; this is unsustainable.
We’re interested in ways to make health care better for less money, not in companies that are able to exploit the system by overcharging. We’re especially interested in preventive health care, as this is probably the highest-leverage way to improve health. Sensors and data are interesting in lots of different areas, but especially for health care.
This is the most prestigious startup accelerator in the country. Only 3 percent of the companies that apply to participate in their program are accepted and they’ve made an explicit request for innovators to explore the possibilities and the promise through use of sensors and data in health care. They see a gap and an opportunity.
In 2014, C Spire partnered with the University of Mississippi Medical Center in a pilot program to improve health care in rural Mississippi through remote monitoring and data analytics involving individuals with diabetes. Thousands of people in our state suffer from more than one chronic disease and live outside the reach of consistent quality health care. Our plan combined the power and ubiquity of our high-speed mobile broadband communications network with Intel-GE sensors that link UMMC specialists to patients in their homes to deliver more connected, collaborative and cost-effective care. Patients are issued tablets and sensors equipped to monitor metrics like glucose levels, provide educational health information, and transmit a seamless stream of data to specialists at UMMC.
UMMC estimates $339,000 in combined savings for the 100 patients in the diabetes pilot program, resulting from the elimination of hospital stays and emergency room visits. Assuming 20 percent of Mississippi’s diabetic population enrolls, this could add up to $189 million in Medicare savings for our state every year.
In fact, that pilot was so successful that C Spire, UMMC and Intel-GE Care Innovations have agreed to partner together on a five-year program that promises to dramatically lower the cost of care and improve the health of thousands of chronically ill and underserved consumers in the southeastern U.S.
This approach helps to close the gap between the medically underserved and everyone else. This saves our state a significant amount of money. This even promises better health outcomes for the many individuals who struggle with chronic diseases every day. This is the medical equivalent of Fitbit, but with much higher stakes.
So as far as health-tech goes, with Big Data and sensors, we’re in a pretty good place. And if history is any indicator, we’ll soon be heading to an even better one.
» Hu Meena is president and CEO of C Spire, a Mississippi-based diversified telecommunications and technology services company.