Edge of Innovation

Future medical technology: Gadgets won’t save your life, software will


The high tech world has always had its eye on changing our lives for the better. But when it comes to the new focus on medical technology, it may be safe to say that software could go well beyond simply improving your life — and into actually saving it.

We have the data. We now need smart software to make sense of it

It’s easy to be dazzled by wearable devices with healthcare functions capable of monitoring  heart rate, blood oxygen levels, physical activity, hydration, breathing patterns, lung function, voice inflection, brain waves, posture, sleep quality and more. But these sensors and the flood of data they collect are useless without smart software to make sense of the numbers.

Earlier this year, Apple introduced its new ResearchKit app, capable of using the internal gyroscope, accelerometer, GPS and other sensors in an iPhone to transform it into a useful diagnostics tool.

Apple’s big plan for ResearchKit is to give scientists a way to carry out large-scale studies among willing iPhone users. Through the app (and the data it collects), it will be possible to build up massive datasets that could prove useful for tracking and one day curing a large number of conditions, such as Parkinson’s and heart disease.

Apple ResearchKit
Apple’s ResearchKit initiative is already being used to tackle medical conditions such as asthma, heart disease and Parkinson’s.

ResearchKit is just one instance of a health-related push by a major Silicon Valley company, but it demonstrates part of a seismic shift we are currently seeing in medicine: the push toward patient-driven healthcare and big data.

The goal is to tailor health care to the individual

“The era of big data — the collection, storage and analysis of vast amounts of information gathered from disparate sources — is no longer in the future,” writes Stanford Medicine’s Bruce Goldman. “It’s happening today. The goal of tailoring all aspects of health care to specific individuals rather than adhering to a one-size-fits-all approach rests on the ability to pool and analyze data on large numbers of people.”

Speaking at Stanford’s third annual Big Data in Biomedicine Conference, Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine, defined the approach as “Precision health” — not a focus on diagnosis and treatment, but on prevention and keeping people healthy.

Basis Peak dashboard
Fitness bands like the Basis Peak already capture a variety of metrics including steps and sleep. The data could be used to prevent future illnesses.

Also speaking at the conference was Eric Dishman, Intel Fellow and General Manager of Intel’s Health & Life Sciences group. He believes that, with access to health information and the software to make sense of it all, it’s possible to detect and monitor small changes in behaviour.

A phone conversation can give you clues to Alzheimer’s disease

As Goldman reports: “An expert in analyzing conversations, Dishman recounted how he’d learned, for example, that ‘understanding the opening patterns of a phone conversation can tell you a lot,’ including giving clues that a person is entering the initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Alternatively, ‘the structure of laughter in a couple’s conversation can predict marital trouble months before it emerges.'”

Increasingly patients will be empowered by their smart devices to take charge of their own health. For instance, the company AliveCor manufactures a smartphone case which doubles as a portable heart monitor — designed to inform users whether they are suffering from an irregular heartbeat and should seek out emergency help. Using smart algorithms, AliveCor’s technology is able to measure your heart rate and advise if you are at risk of a stroke.

But it’s not just patients who are benefiting from the use of cutting-edge technology. Earlier this year, IBM announced a major investment in Modernizing Medicine, a provider of cloud-based, speciality-specific electronic medical records used by more than 5,000 healthcare providers in the U.S.

IBM’s idea is to use its supercomputer Watson — the artificial intelligence system which previously won first place in the game show Jeopardy — to help doctors diagnose diseases and suggest treatment. While human doctors will continue to be our primary physicians, tools like Watson demonstrate the degree to which medicine will only be made smarter and more efficient as time goes on.

And that can only benefit all of us, right? — Luke Dormehl (@lukedormehl)

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