Health Awareness and Making the Transition to Preventative Medicine

Every year more and more devices emerge that help us monitor our health. Many people, and especially the younger generations, enjoy using various gadgets to track the amount of exercise they do, their diet and daily routine. These devices can help us move forward from reactive healthcare to preventative healthcare. Dr. Anthony Faiola, is Professor and Head of the Biomedical and Health Information Sciences Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, gave a keynote at the conference “Digital Transformation & Global Society” (DTGS) at ITMO University.  He spoke about recent developments regarding mobile health information technology, and how his team uses them. Here are the highlights of his report.

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Health problems

Today, the average life expectancy of the world's population is growing, and more and more people depend on the quality of medical services provided to them. The number of people with diabetes is growing, with almost half a billion people affected as of  2017, and the number is predicted to grow. Obesity, a cause of many other diseases, is also a serious problem in many countries. Unfavorable environmental conditions and underdeveloped preventative healthcare lead to an increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. For example, the death rate from cancer in Russia is about twice as high as it is in the United Kingdom or the United States.

An increase in the per capita expenses in the country’s healthcare system does not always correspond to an increase in the average life expectancy. For example, the average life expectancy in Japan is 83-84 years, while in the US it is 77-78 years. At the same time, the US spends twice as much money on every American citizen. One other problem that a lot of money is spent not on improving the average health indicators, but on treating those who are already ill. In the future, healthcare will be all about preventing and predicting diseases, allowing us to cut down on treatment expenses.

What makes medical trackers so popular?

The first reason is that we can wear them constantly, which is important for people who have to keep track of, for example, their blood pressure. Secondly, the devices are becoming more and more powerful, and some of them today can compete with smartphones. The ways to share tracking data are also becoming more advanced, and today it can be sent directly to a doctor or a relative. At the same time, its accuracy is no worse than that of professional medical equipment. Moreover, tracker design is constantly developing and in the near future we will have not only tracker bracelets but also tracker contact lenses, electronic skin and even ingestible micro-cameras for internal examinations.

What kind of trackers are popular right now? For the most part, these are various apps for monitoring a user’s physical activity, eating habits, and sleep, i.e. everything that helps you maintain a certain lifestyle.

“People want to use trackers but they also want to see a doctor. To seek empathy and care from another human being is a natural human trait. Seeing a doctor brings you psychological and emotional comfort. However, many doctors are still very annoyed with patients who read about their symptoms on the Internet, use health trackers and then come to them with a self-diagnosis. Doctors still maintain that they know better than their patients when it comes to identifying the problem. And they really do, but in the future they will have to communicate with each patient and consider the data collected by the trackers. Don’t get me wrong, doctors will still be respected, they will just be able to develop a more personal approach to each patient”, says Professor Faiola.

He also underlines that many young doctors in the US are already welcoming the “mobile” healthcare technologies and encouraging their patients to collect tracker data and explore the Internet. You can get everyone to take care of their health by first obtaining big data on the patients’ wellbeing.

Big data analysis in healthcare

Obviously, to make such a healthcare system effective, you would have to create new algorithms and decision support systems that will analyse big data and use it to make predictions and recommendations. One major advantage of this system is that patients wouldn’t have to visit their doctors that often. After all, they can get all your data and give you a recommendation online. This will facilitate the work of medical staff.

“Big data analysis, artificial intelligence and decision support systems will lessen the number of medical mistakes. After all, many of them occur because the physicians are simply overwhelmed with information they cannot process. Moreover, doctors are people and people can make mistakes, which is why some patients don’t trust doctors. People are beginning to understand that they can keep track of their own health and help doctors choose the right treatment. To keep this awareness and the “mobile” healthcare developing, we need to change people’s understanding of medicine at all levels – the state, education system and individual. We have to inform people about new technologies and ways to take care of their health”, says Professor Faiola.

The media, special classes at schools and universities could do this task. Big data will help to build a system of evidence-based medicine where physicians will not make decisions based on a single account of the patient’s condition but based on the processing of big patient data sets. The more data a patient provides, the more accurate the diagnosis will be.

Data security is, of course, a relevant issue here. After all, personal data can be stolen and a decision support system can be hacked. These are real risks and we need cybersecurity experts to prevent them. People also have to remember that doctors, not programs or algorithms, will make the final decisions on treatment.

Anthony Faiola
Anthony Faiola

Opportunities for programmers and other non-medical professionals

The healthcare of the future will require new technologies that will have to be created by computer scientists. In addition to decision support systems and data analysis algorithms, we will need programs to store patients’ medical histories and AI that will find patterns in information sets and so on. There will need to be new educational programs to train the medical software developers.

“Everything will depend on state and public interest in developing new concepts and approaches to healthcare. If there is interest, if young people see the prospects in this area, then more and more people will be attracted to the field of medical technologies. My department, for example, trains students in the field of Health Information Management; the people who will analyze data to develop new strategies and approaches to medicine. In our Biomedical Visualisation program, we train medical illustrators to use modern information technologies in their work. And Health Informatics trains specialists who will be able to create new strategies based on clinical data analysis. There are not so many educational programs that develop information technology in medicine in Russia, but I think they will appear”, concludes Professor Faiola.

Translated by Pavel Vorobyev 

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