Robot Doctor? Cyborg Patient! The digital transformation of healthcare

@Karima-Catherine Goundiam
13 June 2019

Robot Doctor? Cyborg Patient! The digital transformation of healthcare

Will your future doctor be a robot? Will your treatment see you becoming part machine, almost a cyborg patient? We talk about the future of healthcare technology using language that comes from an imaginative place. A place where science fiction meets multiple engineering hypotheses.

The current reality of healthcare tech does have all the imagination science fiction brought us. It’s also combined with the intellect of highly-engineered solutions to real-world health problems. Still, the digital transformation of healthcare is about how we use technological tools to care for our very human bodies and minds. That said, digital transformation is both supported and hindered by a constant dance of innovation and caution.

It’s the most important investment we can make as individuals and societies.

The investments

Those crucial investments are coming from some new sources. The big tech companies, recognized by the acronym GAFA, Google Amazon Facebook and Apple, are all making forays into healthcare. Are they seeking to disrupt delivery of healthcare services using their know-how and software muscle or are their interests in health care humanitarian in nature? That answer appears to be a hybrid. The motivation seems to come from the human resources department. Headquartered in the United States, the country with the highest healthcare costs in the world, the tech industry’s giants have to manage the cost of the benefits packages offered to their talented workforce.

“Population health and preventive care will be the guiding principles, driving down costs by helping workers stay healthy rather than treating them once they get sick,” says a Vox analysis of Apple’s intention to build and staff two clinics to serve both its workforce and paying members of the larger community.

The involvement of big tech in healthcare goes beyond HR costs though. When it comes to measurements and management of data generated by wearable medical devices ranging from pacemakers to heart rate monitors to blood sugar managers, cloud solutions and big data management — such as the systems that support Google Analytics — are all ready to be applied to healthcare

Wearable medical devices

The wearable medical devices industry is expected to have a value of $14 billion by 2024, says a recent MarketWatch research report. Managing the data the devices generate to inform patient care is just one of the challenges the industry is working to meet.

However, none of these innovations is going to come to market quickly or easily. The healthcare industry is framed by legal constraints, security and privacy issues, and ethical considerations. All of these, while necessary, will slow down the implementation of many new devices and other tools of digital transformation.

This necessary caution is invoked with merit. There have been episodes of promised disruption of bloated healthcare costs that have turned into a massive violation of the public trust.

Theranos, a company founded in 2003 promised to disrupt blood testing procedures through the development and sale of pre-packaged testing strips that could be returned to a lab with the user’s finger prick blood sampled. The concept expanded upon the processes used for blood sugar tests for diabetics into tests for other common ailments.  In 2015, after the company had taken investments totaling more than $9 billion from shareholders, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the testing platforms were not accurate and questioned whether the research had ever been conducted to create the product. Theranos was closed in 2018.

Connected devices and the medical IoT

The idea that testing and other forms of diagnostics can be performed by the patient outside a clinical setting, however, is one that will not end with one $9 billion fraud.  Wearable devices, as well as other forms of connected objects that link patient conditions to the Medical Internet of Things (mIoT) are already revolutionizing diagnostics.

Biomechatronics, the engineering science of wearable medical devices, is increasingly dedicating itself to the development of diagnostic tools. The iTBra, a device consisting of wearable breast patches that measure metabolic changes that indicate tumor activity, is just one example of how wearables can be used to increase early detection and prevent unnecessary biopsies or other invasive procedures. The iTBra is one example of how innovation leads to great hope and promise for a future with earlier detection and better diagnosis that leads to less pain and suffering.

As we talk about the language of healthcare technology and digital transformation, it is pain and suffering, rather that robots and cyborgs that should dominate our concern. We are already experiencing the benefits that have resulted from the digitization of healthcare. Electronic health records, for example, have enabled healthcare providers around the world to share case information and their expertise to enhance patient care.

Artificial Intelligence in healthcare

Sharing information through electronic health records was the first step in gathering the collective knowledge that informs AI in healthcare.  The algorithms that inform AI can access and learn from a vast array of patient data. Information is truly global in this realm. That information defines the markers of good health and the range of what is normal. However, in health care it is what is anomalous, or what deviates from the norm, that is of grave concern. The use of AI has helped to diagnosis, and to correct false diagnoses. In 2016 IBM’s Watson, the company’s supercomputer, correctly diagnosed a woman’s rare form of leukemia.  Doctor’s working on the case knew the patient had leukemia, but had diagnosed the type of leukemia incorrectly. Today, AI algorithms can correctly identify and diagnose cervical cancer using cell phone camera images inputted into an app.

Does this mean doctors will be replaced by robots?

Now that some diagnoses can be completed using cell phone applications, does that mean doctors will be made obsolete? No, but the role of doctors in healthcare delivery will certainly change. While AI enabled databases will contain all the information required to make a diagnosis, someone will still have to explain it to the patient. It also means that doctors will be instruments of empathy. They will deal with the human side of diagnosis and treatment rather than the scientific side. It also means that a simple case of the flu, for example, will be diagnosed and treated remotely while doctors focus on more serious diseases. This particular benefit of digital transformation will also see few cases of communicable conditions being transmitted in waiting rooms.

While you may not be able to trust a diagnosis made by a machine just yet, it is clear that the digital transformation of healthcare is taking out some of the guesswork and replacing it with hard data. It took less than 20 years for consumers to go from not trusting online purchasing portals, to conduct most of their banking and personal finance. Trust in remote healthcare monitoring and diagnoses will probably follow a similar pattern.

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