Healing touchscreens

Technological advances mean more people have more accurate health information faster than ever before, says Jessica Holland

Healthcare is one of the biggest industries in the world today and is changing more rapidly than ever. Smartphones, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, data mining, DNA sequencing and other technological innovations are transforming the way that patients can access medical diagnoses and treatment. And by enabling them to benefit from preventative care and early-stage diagnosis tools, it puts them in far greater control of their health and wellbeing.

“We are about to see a medical revolution with little mobile devices,” writes the cardiologist and digital pioneer Eric Topol, in his headline-grabbing book The Patient Will See You Now, published in January 2015.

It will be a “democratisation” of healthcare, via “unplugged digitisation, with the smartphone as the hub”. These smartphones, he says, will soon be performing blood tests, medical scans and even physical examinations. Empowered patients will be able to monitor their health much more closely than a doctor has time to do, and can bring, whether in person or virtually, their data, preferences and even computer-generated diagnoses and recommen-dations to a doctor, who can guide interpretation and suggest treatments.

Ali Hashemi is co-founder and Managing Partner at the Dubai-based healthcare investment and advisory firm Avicenna Partners. In his view, the MENA region is particularly well placed for innovation in healthcare because the medical infrastructure is not yet fully developed. “Mature markets,” he says, “can be plagued with legacy and sunken costs that make it difficult for truly disruptive and game-changing technologies to take hold.”

One of the companies in which Avicenna has invested is eKare, a company that is working with the UAE’s Ministry of Health and has developed an iPad app that allows plastic surgeons and other doctors to photograph complex wounds in 3D and track their healing. Rehabilitation and long-term care are two areas of medicine in which new software and gadgets can play a big part, according to Hashemi, as well as preventative healthcare – wearable tech can flag up problems like high blood pressure at an early stage – and minor illnesses such as coughs and flu.

Hospitals like Medanta in Mumbai offer video consultations to patients unable to visit due to distance or accessibility

“In the not-so-distant future,” he says, “when you or a member of your family seems to be coming down with something like the common cold, you’ll be able to log onto a telemedicine platform from your mobile or laptop, have a consultation with a physician and electronically get the prescription you need sent over to the nearest pharmacy.” For more severe ailments, he says, a remote consultation can speed up the process of referring you to the right specialist, reducing waiting times at emergency rooms and lowering costs.

Telemedicine is already booming in India, where a large rural population and a lack of manpower have led to hospitals like Medanta in Mumbai offering video consultations to patients unable to visit due to distance or accessibility. Even city-dwellers, who do not live kilometres away from healthcare facilities may not have the time to queue at a doctor’s clinic.

The Chinese start-up Chunyu Yisheng, a mobile app that allows patients to text or call doctors about minor ailments, has been so extraordinarily successful, it hopes to expand from more than 30 million users in 2014 to a target of 100 million by the close of this year. Forum posts and 90-second calls via the app are free, other services are paid for, and the app counts users’ steps and can be connected to other devices to aid with diagnoses.

While telemedicine is good for managing both minor and chronic illnesses, it works less well for patients who have complicated, urgent conditions and live in countries with a shortage of communications infrastructure, clinics or pharmacies, and highly trained specialist doctors. With this in mind, the Dubai-based entrepreneur Aschkan Abdul Malek co-founded the start-up AlemHealth, which links doctors in nine hospitals in Kabul, Afghanistan with specialists in the US, Europe and India, so that patients with less routine, life-threatening conditions can be accurately diagnosed and prescribed
a suitable course of treatment.

“We get the tough stuff,” he says, “People come in with cancer, strokes; about two weeks ago we had a three-year-old kid with a head trauma. That’s the guy we want to be helping.” Via the internet, doctors at the local hospital can provide the specialists with the patient’s medical history and carry out the treatment suggested.

Although the model looks difficult to monetise – Kabul’s population isn’t rich, and Western doctors are expensive – Malek says that people in underdeveloped regions are already spending hundreds of dollars to travel to cities with specialised healthcare facilities. For the doctors in the US, Europe and India, it’s not too time consuming to look at some notes, scans and x-ray images and make a recommendation. Malek has plans to expand in the MENA region, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where there is a shortage of specialists in many hospitals. When it comes to the future of medicine, he says, “You see big changes when you take the next billion people and bring them into the healthcare system.”

This type of innovation improves the ease and speed with which people all over the world can be diagnosed and treated, but others are working to broaden the range of what’s possible with preventative care, and even the expansion of the human lifespan.
The aim of Human Longevity, Inc, a diagnostic and therapeutic company based in California, is to make “100 the new 60” by studying DNA sequencing, proteins, microbial colonies, stem-cell technology and informatics.

We are about to see a medical revolution with little mobile devices

Eric Topol, The Patient Will See You Now

Co-founded by genome-sequencing pioneer Craig Venter, the company is looking into stem-cell therapy to develop treatments for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart and liver disease and dementia. It is also building what it says will be the world’s most comprehensive database on human genotypes and phenotypes to tackle ageing-related diseases, which it eventually plans to license to pharmaceutical, biotech and academic organisations.

Meanwhile, in the last four years, IBM has transformed its AI system, Watson – which can crunch vast amounts of data and use the information to reply to queries posed in natural language, rather than code – into a game-changing piece of healthcare equipment. In April 2015, the company launched Watson Health Cloud, which allows researchers and other health-industry experts to pull data from the system. It’s also possible to feed a patient’s symptoms and medical history into Watson and receive confidence-scored recommendations for treatment.

For some, the idea of computers coming up with healthcare plans, doctors advising patients via text message or email, and scientists looking to cheat death looks dehumanising, like something out of a sci-fi movie.

In fact, better technology and more data can be used to enhance the current state of healthcare, rather than replacing it. “Information as a whole is vital,” Malek says, “and it’s going to be what determines the future in healthcare – the extent to which information is going to be available to the right people at the right time.”