The Medical Futurist - Grand Challenges

Digitize Healthcare Information

Digitalization can make care affordable and available, ensuring sustainability and growing our understanding of disease.



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How It Works: IBM Watson Health



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The Story of Digital Health (Part 1)

Disruptive technologies must transform the current healthcare system, but to get there, we need to digitize the delivery of care. The World Health Organization estimates that there is a worldwide shortage of around 4.3 million physicians, nurses, and allied health workers. And care is often unavailable where it is most needed. Worse, with civilizational diseases like diabetes and obesity on the rise, healthcare costs are expected to grow even faster. American health spending will reach nearly $5 trillion, or 20 percent of gross domestic product by 2021. The current practice of medicine is simply unsustainable.

Major health conditions could be prevented with lifestyle changes.
Medical conditions linked to unhealthy lifestyle cause an economic burden to society.

Healthcare must transform from paper based to digital and quantifiable. Current healthcare systems are dominated by paper-based processes, which cannot be measured and analyzed as easily as digital ones. And even if a medical system is digitized today, it is fragmented and cannot be simply accessed across systems, platforms and locations. The American Medical Association estimates that over $300 billion is wasted through failures of care delivery and outmoded treatments that don’t benefit patients. The United States National Academy of Sciences estimated in 2005 that “between $.30 and $.40 of every dollar spent on healthcare is spent on the costs of poor quality.

A lot of money in healthcare goes to waste.

“The digital world has been in a separate orbit from our medical cocoon, and it’s time the boundaries be taken down.” – Eric Topol, MD

We can only identify the very individual causes civilizational diseases stem from with large amounts of digitized, quality information. Genomic data, for example, is only available for a handful of people – no wonder that President Obama launched an initiative to combine a database of 1,000,000 patient’s genomes. Once healthcare systems are integrated and digital, smart algorithms like IBM Watson can sift through them, looking for patterns in the data, helping us understand, treat, and even prevent disease.

Digitization will enable widespread access to improved healthcare. Many face to face patient-doctor meetings are not necessary, as they could be solved from home by letting doctors access patient data and interact with them remotely. The American Medical Association showed that roughly 1 billion doctor visits occur each year in the United States, and of those, 70 percent are unnecessary and could be avoided by consulting with a physician by phone, email or text. What’s more, a local GP or clinic cannot treat many complex or rare diseases which require expertise only available hundreds of miles away. The combination of telemedicine services and data from health trackers will make this a possibility in the next few years. The rise of remote diagnosis and medicine would not mean the end of the “human touch” in medicine, as many fear. On the contrary, with digital data, it’s easier to share, consult and crowdsource, opening the way for truly personalized care where it is most needed.

Patients and physicians in the US would use telehealth services.
About 74% of patients and 57% of physicians in the U.S. would use telehealth services.

We must digitize healthcare and ensure everyone has access to quality, affordable care, while avoiding the threat of ubiquitous access to private health data:

  • Make devices and sensors that record health data widely available.
  • Develop integrated systems that can store and analyze it, growing our understanding of disease and measuring physician performance.
  • Design smart algorithms to support decision-making, prescribe personalized treatment and ensure compliance with therapy.
  • Make access to someone’s own health data a basic human right.
  • Protect health data and privacy of patients to avoid misuse of information.

Ensure that access to care is available from home, not just the clinic.

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