From Personal to PERSONALized Medicine

by Moshe Rappoport, Technology Advocate and Trend Expert, IBM Forum Zurich Research - Industry Solutions Lab

Personalized medicine has become a buzzword in the use of technology to transform medicine and patient care. Yet, healthcare is a people-based issue. It’s the intuition, the experience, the human sense and sensitivity that allow doctors and caregivers to excel in their profession. So the challenge is this: What can we do to smooth the transition to a medical world that is increasingly enhanced by, and dependent on, technology?

As someone who has regularly briefed CEOs from the healthcare and life sciences industries at the IBM Forum Zurich Research ISL in Switzerland, I have had the opportunity to see which technology projects tend to be most successful.  My answer to the challenge may surprise you, coming from someone who has been working at a world-famous science and technology lab for more than a quarter of a century.

IBM Technology Advocate Moshe Rappoport
(photo Mike Ranz)

Before I give you my impressions, let me share with you some of the major tipping points in healthcare informatics. Three key technological components are needed to create game-changing medtech solutions that will support our dream of evidence-based medical diagnostics and outcomes. 

Firstly, we need affordable and available technology for capturing patient data and novel diagnostics in real time.

Secondly, we require the ability to share health data securely through local and remotely interconnected communications devices (often called the Internet of Things).

Thirdly, we must have intelligent systems which are capable of combining and comparing patient data with large amounts of clinical data and, based thereon, proposing optimal treatments.  

I believe that today we can claim that we are just now reaching the tipping point on all of these requirements. For example, at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, neonatal intensive care specialists can now monitor a constant stream of biomedical data, such as heart rate and respiration, enabling them to spot potentially fatal infections in premature infants up to 24 hours earlier than before.  Through deep analytics and a better understanding of population health, it will become increasingly possible to hyper-personalize medicine. For example, if a physician is treating a 45 year old Japanese female with high blood pressure, a history of smoking and breast cancer, increasingly they will be able to gather evidence-based information on specifically what treatment would work best for her. Analytics, including novel capabilities based on IBM’s Watson technology,  will help us look more closely at subpopulations that differ in their susceptibility to a particular disease or their response to a specific treatment.

All of these examples are first-of-a-kind efforts, and I expect to see significant advancements in the next few years—a golden era for medical technology. The timing couldn’t be better, as we are facing demographic and cost explosions that require radical new approaches to healthcare.

"I believe that I can state from my more than 40 years
of IT experience that the success of technology adoption
is usually correlated with the amount of effort spent in
designing systems optimized for human beings."
(photo by Mike Ranz)

So back to my original question about smoothing the transition to a technology-enhanced and dependent medical world.

I am convinced that we must plan from the very beginning—and not as an afterthought—to deal with a realistic personal view of the various people who will be using these systems. And we must continue to do so at every point during this transition phase. Our view must encompass all stakeholders: patients and their families, caregivers at all levels, administrators, government officials, payers etc. In other words, as we become ever more dependent on medical technology, we must not risk losing the human touch that is so important to the healing process. For me this involves fostering a feeling of trust on all sides.

Some of the factors that we will need to consider are: the ease of usability of medtech systems including easily understandable output results as well as transparency of complex processes. We will also need to be sensitive to the tech-readiness of different age groups, the rights of patients to be informed about their health in a sensitive way, and of course data privacy.

Already we are taking steps in these directions. Swiss start-up Nhumi, for example, is revolutionizing the way physicians interact with electronic patient data by providing the most intuitive interface you can think of: an interactive, browsable 3D-map of the human body. It provides doctors with the ability to easily look up and access the electronic health record of their patient. including medical notes, patient history, CT-scans, X-ray images, etc.  With so called Smart Rooms, patients at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center are able to electronically follow their planned treatment protocol  from their beds—if medically and psychologically appropriate.  Patient empowerment has been shown to improve medical outcomes.  I personally recall, watching a seriously ill physician lying in the same room as my mother in a New York hospital, fighting her frustration in not being informed of her condition and the next treatment steps.

To further advance medtech solutions, we also have to gain a better understanding of the critical characteristics that inform the patients’ choices, actions and responses to their own health requirements. By truly understanding the individual patient, physicians and other caregivers can really influence their participation in their own health management.

I believe that I can state from my more than 40 years of IT experience that the success of technology adoption is usually correlated with the amount of effort spent in designing systems optimized for human beings.

As we move into an era of medtech-supported personalized medicine, we want to ensure our focus on the word personal at all stages.

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