Health and Healthcare

How the internet is improving healthcare

Human genetic material is stored at a laboratory in Munich May 23, 2011. On May 25, 2011 the ethic commission of the German lower house of parliament (Bundestag) will discuss about alternative proposals for a new law on the use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (Praeimplantationsdiagnostik) is a technique used to identify genetic defects in embryos created through in vitro fertilization (IVF) before pregnancy, which is banned by German legislation.  REUTERS/Michael Dalder    (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS HEALTH SOCIETY SCI TECH) - RTR2MSAV

When it comes to digitization, the healthcare industry is moving forward, albeit slowly. Image: REUTERS/Michael Dalder

Lydia Ramsey
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Scientific and technological innovation are at the heart of improving the way doctors treat illness and disease.

When it comes to digitization, the healthcare industry is moving forward, albeit slowly, navigating a highly regulated field that deals with massive amounts of sensitive information.

One of the most notable efforts in this area has been the more than decade-long push to adopt electronic health records, the digital version of each patient's medical history.

Though the technology is still far from ideal, we might finally be getting somewhere: according to a report released this month by PwC Health Research Institute, about 90% of hospitals have at least basic EHRs, up from 9% a decade ago.

And healthcare providers and patients are getting increasingly connected to one another, and the amount of information that's collected is growing all the time.

 Figure 1
Image: Business Insider

Here's a look at how digital technologies are impacting other areas in life sciences and healthcare, along with some of the obstacles that remain.

The Internet is helping doctors connect to resources — including one another

With the Internet, doctors and medical students are more connected than ever to resources to help them learn. And with that comes social media platforms, such as Figure 1, that connect doctors to one another, crowdsourcing diagnoses for cases that have them stumped.

Figure 1 co-founder Dr. Joshua Landy told Business Insider that Figure 1 is trying to be the "central nervous system of healthcare," though it may look like an "Instagram for doctors." Through the app, doctors can submit cases that have them stumped (with the patients' approval), and others can try and help out. A single post can sometimes generate thousands of responses. Landy said the platform has about 1.5 million users around the world, a group that includes doctors, nurses and other healthcare experts.

Smarter devices will take readings, then deliver care accordingly without any human help

Medical devices — and fitness trackers in general — are getting more connected, allowing you to get everything from your heart rate to your blood sugar levels on your smartphone.

In particular, closed-loop systems will become a lot more prevalent in the coming years, Mike Mussallem, the CEO of medical device company Edwards Lifesciences told Business Insider. These systems can essentially get a reading, and deliver a treatment based on that reading without any human interventions.

For example, in September, the FDA approved a device that's often referred to as an "artificial pancreas" for use in people with type 1 diabetes over age 14. The device, made by Medtronic, is called the MiniMed 670G, and it works by automatically monitoring a person's blood sugar levels and administering insulin as needed — no constant checking and injecting required.

The hope with these closed loop systems is to take care of some of the busy work, so that doctors and patients can focus on more important issues as they arise.

Computers could give your doctor a second opinion

In the medical world, machine learning and imaging seem to go hand in hand. For example, GE is partnering with UC San Francisco over the next three years to help doctors determine which results need more attention, reports Fast Company. One of the projects aims to shorten the time between reading an X-ray and giving potentially lifesaving treatment.

And they're not the only ones jumping the space. Watson Health said in June that it's partnering with more than 15 hospitals and companies using imaging technology to see how "cognitive imaging" works in the real world. The collaboration will help Watson Health figure out what works and what doesn't before they launch the service, expected in 2017.

Beyond images, Watson's also making moves in drug development and guiding cancer treatments. At a breast cancer conference December 9, IBM also presented data on its cancer diagnostic program. Watson was given the health record information for close to 700 patients in India and was asked to figure out the best course of treatment the way doctors on a tumor board do. The researchers found that Watson got the same answer as the tumor board about 90% of the time, which deputy chief health officer Dr. Andrew Norden told Business Insider was where IBM would expect it to be — if it agreed with the tumor board 100% of the time, there wouldn't be a reason to have the supercomputer give a second opinion.

Cheaper sequencing technology gives more people access to a new set of data — your DNA

In 2003, when the human genome was first sequenced, it changed the way we were able to study the body. At that time, itt cost a whopping $2.7 billion and took a total of 13 years to decode all 3 billion base pairs in our 23 chromosomes.

Now, the cost to sequence an entire human genome is down to just $1,000, thanks to powerful sequencing platforms.

Knowing every single bit of information that's encoded in your DNA can be a powerful tool, and bringing down the cost makes that information accessible to way more people.

Pharmaceutical companies are using data to their advantage

With more information going into electronic health records and genetic data becoming more readily available, pharmaceutical companies should be poised to take advantage of such advances to get better outcomes or generate more effective drugs.

But there's a reason things haven't been moving as fast as expected. ZS principal Pratap Khedkar told Business Insider the pharmaceutical industry hasn't seen more impact from digitization because of the ways medicine gets paid for currently. Everyone from health insurance companies to healthcare providers to pharmacy benefits managers all have a different way to make money.

Take value-based pricing, for example. The goal is to improve the quality of care while at the same time cutting healthcare costs. Applying value-based pricing to pharmaceuticals means tying payment for a drug to its effectiveness, rather than per use. This represents a huge shift — the kind of change that takes time, said Khedkar.

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