Guest post by Vlad Kostanda, CEO, Adoriasoft.
Healthcare is one sector where information technology is yet to be exploited to its fullest. Medical science has gained a lot from computers and information technology but healthcare is still being run mostly without it. The basic healthcare process entail the patient thinking something is wrong with them and going to a doctor. It depends too much on people’s own observances and not enough on science. Our medical equipment has gotten better and we are able to cure and manage more diseases than before but the basic healthcare regimen is still the same. That will not be true for many more years because healthcare is slowly starting to embrace information technology.
The biggest roadblock for technology in healthcare is that failure is unacceptable. In most other areas you can afford some mistakes or errors. Sometimes your Netflix doesn’t load, sometimes your phone may drop a few calls, perfectly acceptable. The same cannot be afforded when it comes to healthcare. So while we are not happy that IT is not being full used in healthcare right, we are happy that we are focusing on ensuring everything works perfectly before implementing it in a medical setting.
Health monitoring will save lives and change how we communicate with doctors
The diseases that most people die of are perfectly curable or manageable. Even most cancers are curable – as long as they are caught in time. That is why so many people still die from cancers. You can have cancerous growths in your body and not show any symptoms. By the time people get in front of an oncologist it is often too late to fully cure their issues. This is also why the deadliest cancers are also the ones that are the hardest to detect. There’s a special type of gallbladder cancer which doesn’t exhibit any symptoms until it metastases. Aside from cancers there are many other diseases which can be reversed in the beginning. Many forms of diabetes as well as heart problems can be reversed if caught early simply through diet and exercise.
Another problem is that people do not know what symptoms to be worried about and often do not go to doctors because they don’t realize what is wrong with them. We can’t blame people either; only doctors know what symptoms to be worried about and it takes them a decade worth of education to reach that level. We cannot expect people who did not pursue a medical education to instantly realize that something is wrong with them. There are many simple things which indicate big problems as well. Things like fatigue and a lack of desire to eat seem like just one of those things that happen to everyone sometimes, but they can be symptoms of serious illnesses as well.
Sensors and trackers will capture medical information in real time
All this is about to be changed thanks to information technology. Medical sensors are already a consumer product but they are limited. Products like Fitbit have been available in the market for years but they only measure basic vital signs such as pulse and the amount of exercise you are getting. As we get better at making sensors smaller we will soon begin seeing similar devices which can monitor many other things in our bodies and let us know if anything is wrong. These devices are proving to be quite popular as well; in this year’s Consumer Electronics Expo there were 32 new health monitoring products unveiled by companies like HTC, Philips, Samsung, and Intel.
Another huge application of such devices is providing vital information to doctors. Doctors need your medical history in order to make the correct diagnoses. Since most of us do not know what is medically significant we aren’t very good at self reporting what is wrong with us. Medical sensors, trackers and mHealth apps will be able to tell doctors exactly what has changed in our bodies and when the changes started. Doctors will have more information about our bodies than ever before which will allow them to make more accurate diagnosis than ever before. The devices will also be connected to the internet and will be able to contact emergency services when needed. Heart attacks, seizures, accidents, anything that requires immediate medical attention will automatically hail an ambulance to your location. This is huge because a big problem is ensuring that people who live alone get the medical help which they need without needing there to be someone else in the room with them to call 911.
Preventive care will get the focus it deserves
There’s a big problem with the way we treat the healthcare system in the world. We focus a lot on curing diseases but do not focus on preventing diseases. We came to this system not because we are stupid – it was just the most viable way to do things. We only begin fighting diseases when people come to the doctor because that was the only way we had to detect a problem. Now, thanks to the developments in information technology, we will soon have the means to focus on preventive care properly. There are already sensors which can tell you if there are any harmful gases or particles in your home.
Such monitoring devices will get more advanced and become a great way to detect diseases earlier and will allow us to prevent them completely. Imagine getting a notification on your phone that goes “You have consumed 10 tablespoons of sugar and 500 grams of fats per day for the past month. Continuing this pattern will cause many diseases and medical problems. Would you like to switch to a healthier diet?”. Information technology will give us the ability to detect problems as they are being formed and fix them. This will also substantially lower our medical expenses. The effects of such monitoring and its aid for preventive care are mind boggling. Ever year more than 3 million skin cancer cases are diagnosed; most of these could be prevented just by ensuring that people do not spend too much time out in the sun. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death in the developed world, more than all the cancers combined. Yet, most cardiovascular diseases can be prevented entirely through diet and proper exercise.
Medical testing will be more affordable and accessible thanks to IT
If you are lucky enough to live in a country that is economically well off you may not even be aware of how big this issue is but medical testing is a big problem for people all over the world. America, most European, and Nordic countries have excellent medical testing equipment and capabilities. We have access to some of the best testing equipment in the world which allows us to treat and diagnose diseases better. The problem is that these machines cost millions of dollars – something which our hospitals can afford. There are many countries where this isn’t true. Countries that are economically struggling simply do not have the required equipment. If you were to visit the best hospitals in Nepal, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, or any similar country, you may get medical services comparable to a normal hospital in a more developed country.
This means that many people are dying in these (and hundreds of other similar countries) simply because they do not have the capability to diagnose many diseases correctly. We cannot expect these countries to spend billions on medical equipment because it doesn’t fit into their healthcare budgets. These countries will benefit the most from a global IT infrastructure that allows us to connect them with testing equipment all over the world. We can have testing centers similar to data centers which can rent out their services. This will make testing much more affordable and accessible to hundreds of millions of people all over the world, saving many lives in the process. There are limitations to this right now. Most tests require actual blood or other samples to be in the testing machine so transporting them will still be an issue. As technology develops further we may overcome such roadblocks and bring better healthcare to the world.
Healthcare will become patient-centric instead of being doctor-centric
IT will completely change the way that we think of healthcare in a few decades. Right now our whole healthcare system is completely dependent on the doctor which isn’t really the ideal approach. We respect doctors a lot and doctors have to struggle a lot in order to become qualified for their jobs but the system still isn’t good. Our entire healthcare depends on the knowledge and expertise of people and as we all know people aren’t very efficient compared to machines or software. The healthcare system we have is centered on the doctor not because it was the best idea we had but because it was the only viable system we had access to.
The problems with our current system become apparent when you think about how our system works. You go to a Doctor who prescribes you tests depending on their observances and ideas. A doctor looks at you, hears you out, and tells you to go get some tests done. There is no scientific approach; instead we are depending on the opinion of doctors. People sometimes get misdiagnosed and diseases get detected too late because of the system. Not because the doctors are bad or careless but simply because they are, well, human. Doctors are still the best way to get the correct diagnosis right now but as our software, sensors, machinery, and artificial intelligence technology improves this will no longer be true. A system based on information technology will be able to detect much more about your body and make a better diagnosis. There is guesswork involved in our healthcare right now and this will be completely removed as our technology improves. We will not need to guess what could be wrong with the patient based on their symptoms, we will be able to directly test them and find out.
We will still need doctors
Doctors aren’t going anywhere, at least not for the next few decades. This will not only change our hospitals but the career of doctors as well. Once basic diagnosis and treatments can be handled by technology the focus of medical sciences will shift towards science. Instead of studying ways to diagnose people the doctors of the future will be studying new ways to cure diseases. This will result in a rapid advancement of our medical knowledge. Doctors will work more like engineers in the future; training to come up with solutions for our problems instead of training to look at people and guessing what could be wrong with them.
There is much advancement that still needs to be made for this to become a reality. First we need to vastly improve our testing equipment and sensors. Cancer is a great case study for this approach. Cancer often goes undetected because test for different types of cancers are completely different. The test for thyroid cancer will not reveal gallbladder cancer and vice versa. The minute we make a testing machine or sensor that can detect cancer anywhere in our body cancer will become a much easier disease to tackle. We will simply be able to go in to a testing center every few months and get our whole body tested for cancers. We will be able to detect cancers at their initial stages. This is great because in the initial stages cancers are mostly curable. Many cancers, if caught in the beginning, can be cured with medication instead of requiring chemotherapy or any other intense treatment.
A healthcare system centered around patients
This will make the whole healthcare system completely patient centric. The doctors will be called in when needed and will not be a basic requirement of the healthcare process. This will also solve a lot of problems that are caused by patients. Ask any doctor and they will tell you how frustrating it is to work with patients. Doctors spend their whole lives trying to help people and yet they are often misled by the patients themselves. Patients don’t reveal the extent of their symptoms, lie about their habits or diseases, and much more. Sometimes the patients are simply too confused or stressed to give accurate information to doctors. With an automated IT based system this will not be an issue. Patients also often hide information because they feel embarrassed. They don’t want to tell another person they did something stupid or are ashamed because of some puritanical views that make them ashamed of their own bodily functions. The same patients will not feel any shame telling a machine what is wrong with them.
Better handling of medical data
We are ridiculously bad at handling and using medical information considering the technologies that are available to us. We may lack sensors and many technologies for advancements in other areas but the field of data science has easily matured enough to be used in a medical context. The problem is that too many companies are too scared of HIPAA to innovate. They just end up choosing other fields to apply their big data technologies in. This is, in our opinion, a very shortsighted move. HIPAA is here to protect us and while working under it is harder, it isn’t completely prohibitive. The financial industry has many regulations governing its data as well but that hasn’t stopped them from using data productively and it shouldn’t stop companies in the medical field either. The benefits of using data correctly yare so staggering that even if there is something wrong with HIPAA the companies should work with the government to fix the problems.
Shared medical records will make diagnosis better
When you go to a new doctor you often have to fill up a checklist about your medical history. This is because, as strange as it seems, most countries still do not have a centralized system for medical information. With a few clicks it is possible for the authorities to find out all your police records and financial records but the same isn’t true for medical records. This is largely blamed on the privacy laws that govern medical data but that is a problem we will need to come up with a solution for. Imagine if doctors could access your previous doctor’s notes. They could easily eliminate the things the previous doctors tried but did not work. They can start their process from after where the previous doctor left off, instead of restarting from the beginning. The rise of such a system is inevitable. Sure, our laws will take some time to catch up with the technology but it is bound to happen sooner or later. In 2004 only 20.8 percent of medical facilities were using electronic health records that could be shared. In 2014 82.8 percent of all medical facilities had electronic health records. The figure is probably much higher now and will get closer to 100 percent in a few years.
Trend analysis will help find out diseases
We talked about sensors that capture data already. The problem is that right now we don’t have any data to compare. Once such sensors start becoming commonplace we will easily be able to store the data. We will then be able to run trend analysis and other functions on the data to reveal medical problems. Not only will this help doctors diagnose us better, but the analysis itself will be able to diagnose our problems in many cases as well. This will also help us catch environmental diseases better. If a lot of people in the same area start exhibiting the same changes the government can be immediately notified that something is wrong in the area. The next time something like Ebola happens we will not have to wait until it has spread to find out about it; information technology will ensure that the system is triggered and a notification is sent to the authorities immediately.
The healthcare industry lags behind in IT
The healthcare sector lags behind every other industry in the use of information technology. IT has transformed engineering, banking, trading, retail, automobile, transport, shipping, and pretty much every industry out there but the healthcare industry is still acting the way it did decades ago. While this is not ideal it is also a huge opportunity. A lot of investment is needed in the IT sector for the healthcare industry and the lack of current offerings means that the investment will have a high return on investment. This is especially worrying if you look at the financial side of things; according to The Council for Affordable Quality Healthcare the healthcare industry can save $8.1 billion every year by using IT standards common in other industries instead of holding manual records.
How to encourage innovation in the healthcare IT industry
We need more data scientists, programmers, and engineers to start working for the medical industry for this to happen. The issue is that medical science is such as complicated and difficult field that it isn’t possible for people from other fields to learn about it as well. The people who create software for the financial industry do short courses in finance and accounting to make better software. The same is true for most industries that require expertise. Many times the opposite happens as well – people study for 4 years at a university in a different field and then learn programming. They then go on to make software and technology that actually benefits in real world applications for the industry.
You cannot apply the same methodology to the healthcare field. The problem is that studying in the field of medicine means making a commitment of anywhere from eight to nine years. Usually the students have a four- to five-year program, then a two- to four-year program for specialization, then they need to work at a hospital as a trainee for an year before they are awarded a degree. People who have spent nine years studying and working hard to be the part of an industry aren’t just going to drop the field and study programming instead. We need to create courses and programs which specifically target people from other fields of science and allow them to gain a basic understanding of the way the medical industry operates.
We don’t need to teach these people how to cure people; we just need to teach them how hospitals work. The course can teach people from other disciplines about the requirements of this industry, about how people act within hospitals, and what the biggest problems in the industry are. They can also be given a basic understanding of the different types of tests that are run and the many different fields within healthcare. Once we have expert engineers and programmers who actually understand the healthcare field we will begin to see newer and better ways to cure people. Doctors are already overworked and busy saving lives; we need to step up and give them better tools to do so. Once we create the proper framework, innovation and betterment should be inevitable. Everyone wants to make the next big thing; we just need to show them that this industry badly needs the next big thing in IT.