Is the 21st century coming to the health industry?


The problems holding health care back are so basic, it’s difficult to explain to people outside the industry. Basically, the health industry is a data mess. Inaccurate and incomplete patient records float around hospitals in duplicate format, some on different computer systems, other on scraps of paper stuffed into manila folders. Pharmacy departments in large public hospitals are still using computers that run on DOS. Doctors and nurses continuously asking patients the same questions, because don’t have accurate data about the most basic issues, like does the patient still have chest pain.

This could change. The push to better manage chronic diseases is on. Insurance companies and governments want to lower health costs and increase efficiency. And all the hype about ‘big data’ is become a more realistic ‘data matching’.

In America, Vice President Joe Biden is on a campaign to cure cancer. His quest has led him to the realisation that the issue is not finding a cure for this disease, but finding a way to break down information silos and allow data matching.

At present, oncologists only do genetic testing on a tiny cohort of their patients. They might share their findings with one or two other oncologists, that’s all. This practice reflects medicines ancient past. Priests, lawyers and doctors were self-employed, small business people who ran their own practice independent of any government structure. That was fine when the average life expectancy was below forty. It’s not fine, now that it’s heading towards eighty and health budgets are over ten percent of GDP and rising.

Barriers to sharing genetic data on cancer patients include incompatible hospital computer systems, restrictive privacy laws, excessive red tape and bickering over who will pay for the genetic tests. When these basic barriers are overcome, genetic testing and data sharing will produce rapid and substantial results.

Meanwhile assessing neurological function using a simple and non-invasive rapid eye movements tests is now possible. The simple visual test has been produced by Neurotrack, an American health startup. The test assesses the functions of the brain deeper and more ‘primitive’ area known as the hippocampus. If the test passes approval processes, it could become a cheap, easy to use way to predict Alzheimers, before symptoms appear. Other diseases could also be diagnosed prior to symptoms occurring. Abnormal results on rapid eye movement tests have been shown to be linked to both people with schizophrenia but also their first degree relatives.

Digital biomarkers used to mean the basic data available from the first generation of smart devices, such as fitness trackers. A decade later, smartphones can produce an ECG trace, report on anaemia levels using the camera function and link blood glucose readings to cloud records that predict future risk of hypoglycaemia. The more data that emerges, the more it can be sorted into predictive analysis and then fed back to the person, with encouragement to follow healthier livestyles.

More than half America’s population has one chronic disease. Australia, along with the western world would have similar figures. The future of your health is, I predict on your smart phone.

© Wikihospitals February 2016


A simple, five-minutes test could make earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer’s possible. Quartz. 28th January 2016. Esther Landhuis.
Eye tracking dysfunction in Schizophrenia: characterisations and pathophysiology.  November 9th 2011. PMC. Deborah L. Levy,corresponding author Anne B. Sereno, Diane C. Gooding, and Gilllian A. O’Driscoll
The emerging influence of digital biomarkers on healthcare. Rock Health. Emily King and Mara Perman.