Many of us are aware of digital health technologies through use of wearables, such as fitness trackers, and activity tracking apps. But these aren’t the only ways digital technologies are being applied to benefit our health.
Digital health itself spans from drug discovery to diagnostics, and from genomics to wearable and implantable medical devices. Artificial intelligence and big data are just part of the digital health revolution we have been seeing gain pace over the last few years.
This month, the healthcare tsar Sir John Bell told the BBC that artificial intelligence (AI) could save the NHS. This follows on from one of the Industrial Strategy Grand Challenges put in place last year, namely to put the UK at the forefront of the AI and data revolution.
What can we do with big data in healthcare?
At the recent J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference, digital health was top of the bill again. Here, Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of 23andMe, described how the company brought the first FDA-approved direct-to-consumer genetic health tests to the market. The tests tell consumers whether they have a genetic predisposition to 10 diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. One of the key attributes of 23andMe is the breadth of data the company generates. Anne postulated that, by using big data in healthcare we could help create new drugs, detect risks for diseases and have an invaluable contribution to the healthcare field.
Pharma and tech giants Pfizer and IBM have joined forces to do just that. Pfizer is using IBM Watson’s AI and machine learning capabilities to identify new drug targets and combination therapies for cancer treatment. By mining the wealth of data available on drug molecules in scientific literature, clinical trials and within Pfizer itself, the Watson technology should speed up the discovery of much needed oncology drugs.
A new era of medical devices
In late 2016, the partnership between Verily Life Sciences (part of Google) and GlaxoSmithKline formed Galvani Bioelectronics. The company’s focus is to create a new class of medicines which are actually miniaturised, implantable medical devices. These so-named bioelectronic devices, when implanted, can detect and precisely modify electrical signals in nerves. Although still in early development, these bioelectronic devices offer huge potential in the treatment of debilitating chronic diseases.
What should we expect to see in digital health in 2018?
2018 is when we will start to see the fruits of the digital health movement being implemented in healthcare, really having an impact on patients and the economy. One example is the Ultromics system which will be available within the NHS from the summer of 2018. This uses AI to scan cardiac images and rapidly diagnose heart disease and heart attacks. These systems will save the NHS more than £300m a year by enabling the diseases to be picked up much earlier, and with >90% accuracy. Currently, there is about £2.2bn spent on disease diagnosis in the NHS. Sir John Bell thinks this could be reduced by 50% through the use of AI alone.
So, is this the year for digital health? Yes, and it is just the beginning.
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