Big data

Digital Healthcare Is Fighting Fit

doctor showing patient results on digital tablet
A doctor shows a patient results on digital tablet.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Technology giants such as Google and Apple are increasingly releasing apps that monitor people’s health. But the software raises tricky questions about privacy and consent.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Apple’s new Care Kit is a collection of apps that can be used to monitor various health indicators.
    • Such software can serve as an early warning system to prevent heart attacks and dangerously low blood sugar levels.
    • Digital innovations have radically changed the way diseases such as cancer are diagnosed and treated.
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    Audio

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When Apple unveiled its new products in March, everyone was focused on the fact that the iPhone was getting smaller and cheaper. The company’s innovations in the healthcare field seemed less spectacular, even though it has what it takes to completely revamp healthcare.

The tech giant unveiled the so-called Care Kit, a collection of app-based applications through which patients can, for example, be monitored after an operation in the future. Parkinson’s patients, diabetics and people with depression can also use apps and smartphones to monitor their illness.

The new technology provides patients with medication schedules, information on how to move and what to eat, and the ability to share their data with their doctor or a nurse. It also includes an emergency notification function.

Apple isn’t the only company to introduce these innovations. Other technology companies, such as IBM, Google and SAP, are also pushing into the healthcare business and forming joint ventures with pharmaceutical companies and medical device makers to improve monitoring of chronically ill patients.

When it comes to data relating to our bodies, suspicion and fear of surveillance are especially salient.

These applications are still in their infancy, but the potential is enormous. In a few years, 500 million diabetics worldwide could be monitored with mobile devices. They will then provide data for early warning systems that report dangerously low blood sugar levels hours before an actual emergency. Medical technology specialist Medtronic is developing this type of solution with support from IBM’s Watson supercomputer.

In millions of people, a second heart attack could be avoided if monitoring data triggers an alarm. Such applications would always be relevant, given that cardiovascular disease is responsible for more than a third of deaths worldwide, while diabetes is now a widespread disease and is spreading rapidly around the world.

These are strong arguments for the use of Big Data in medicine. But no matter how rosy a project sounds, its success always depends on a critical factor: acceptance by the public. This is true of all projects in the digital economy, of course, but when it comes to data relating to our bodies, suspicion and fear of surveillance are especially salient.

Creating and securing trust are the real challenges in digital healthcare. The promised progress can only be achieved if enough people or patients are willing to divulge their data. Medicine depends greatly on statistics. And the better the statistics, that is, the more meaningful the dataset, the greater are the chances that useful information can be derived from it.

Technological progress always needs a social benefit to succeed. In the media, in particular, probably everyone can understand the benefits of digital innovations.

Take cancer, for example. In the past, the disease was named after the part of the body where it occurred: lung cancer, colon cancer, kidney cancer. Today we know that the same genetic changes are the catalysts for tumors in various parts of the human body. Through genetic tests, doctors can determine which mutations are present and whether a promising, targeted therapy already exists for those mutations.

Most people approve of such technologies that display recognizable benefits. But so that these opportunities can also be utilized, it is important to ensure that the patient remains in control of his data and must consent to a doctor gaining access to it.

Preventing data misuse is vital to the success of digital healthcare projects. It was not for nothing that Apple so energetically refused to help the FBI decode the iPhone of a presumed terrorist. After all, the company wants users to entrust it with highly personal data on the state of their health. Who will be willing to do so with the knowledge that there are potential backdoors to their personal data?

If pharmaceutical companies, IT companies, hospitals, insurance companies and doctors can prove that people’s health data can be safely processed, they will not be the only ones to benefit. If they manage to create a trustworthy system to handle such sensitive information, users will be more accepting of other Big Data projects. In this way, digital medicine could pave the way for digitalization as a whole.

 

To contact the author: telgheder@handelsblatt.com

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