Increasing demand on healthcare resources from an ever-growing population and ageing society means technology is now more important than ever. In the day-to-day business of health, there are serious information gaps which threaten the wellbeing of us all – and add substantially to the costs of maintaining our healthcare system. Information and communications technology will be vital in fixing these deficiencies. However, ICT has an even bigger role to play in the management of healthcare by helping to cure, care and prevent.
Sensors – big data driving big benefits
The proliferation of intelligent, connected devices is enabling heightened data collection, which has great applications in healthcare. In particular, sensors are being used to track key health metrics and feed these data streams into the cloud for analysis or action.
Already small, easily wearable and wireless monitors can collect blood pressure data and send it to central servers over the internet in real time. The resulting data can be analysed with no perceptible delay and if necessary an action message can be sent to the wearer or their doctor. Further devices such as wearable blood glucose sensors are already in the advanced stages of development. Of course personal heart rate and activity monitors are ubiquitous.
A caring environment
Sensors in the patient’s environment can provide vital data, which is particularly advantageous given the ageing population. Homes can be fitted with ambient sensors monitoring the elderly and frail for abnormal movement patterns associated with a fall or other injury.
This means that not only will carers will be able to respond faster and to more falls, but the healthcare community will also learn more about the environmental factors affecting falls. Fujitsu is helping with the KIDUKU Research Project in Ireland, an initiative to provide health monitoring services and assisted independent living for senior citizens and patients who live in smart houses.
Dealing with the health data explosion
The possibilities offered by massive sets of health data are almost limitless, but how we structure and analyse the data is vital to unlocking this potential. One challenge is that different sensor types sample at different rates. As a result any effort to aggregate data with these different resolutions needs to deal with varying numbers of samples for different sensors over the same time period. A further challenge will be the establishment of standards for the format of data stored. The data is only useful if it can be accessed, interpreted correctly and acted upon with confidence.
At Fujitsu we are using Hadoop distributed computing technology to manage large, diverse health data sets – but the development of data standards across healthcare will help everyone make sense of data faster.
Genomics – living data we can act on
In the years since the completion of the Human Genome Project, the cost and time required to sequence an individual genome have plummeted. These developments mean that the creation of a highly valuable database of human genetic information is becoming a reality. As a result, more focused developments of treatments for single patients are becoming possible, costing far less and with much greater effectiveness.
Cancer patients can look forward to medicines tailored to their specific tumour through the analysis of their genetic material, leading to more effective treatments and reduced secondary tissue damage. Tamoxifen hormone therapy for breast cancer routinely relies on a test for an enzyme identified through genomic research. This means the therapy is targeted at patients whose genetic makeup indicates their suitability. Recent announcements about the discovery of unique gene markers in every cell in a tumour again clearly demonstrate the value of genomic analysis.
Technology transfer – healthcare borrowing from business
ICT is also making major contributions to healthcare by bringing in advances from other sectors. For example, experience from logistics and business process management can be imported to make health systems run more efficiently and effectively.
In addition, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can emulate human execution of repetitive processes, saving time and costs and more importantly enabling healthcare professionals to treat patients instead.
Meanwhile 3D printing technology is set to revolutionise joint replacement therapies, and even organ replacements. Not only does this mean more personalised solutions for patients, with the benefits of closer adaptation, better function and reduced recovery time, it also signals a radical change in the surgical supply chain. With clinics able to fabricate parts at the time and place of need, fewer resources will be tied up in generic stock.
Security – keeping our data safe and sound
The advances in healthcare described here rely on large amounts of detailed personal data being collected, transmitted and stored in central locations. This raises obvious concerns about patient privacy and data security. Data could be intercepted as it is streamed from a sensor over a wireless network, or accessed in cloud databases by hackers. And the proliferation of Personal Health Records (PHR) opens another point of access for criminal elements.
Measures to protect medical data may include the adoption of personal banking-style authentication controls for access to a PHR, the removal of personally identifiable data from publicly available databases and the segmentation of data to allow specific groups of healthcare professionals to access only the data they need to perform their roles. Biometric security may also play a key part in this.
Healthcare has a great deal to benefit from ICT. Technology offers a key means of extending medical knowledge, intervening in patients’ treatments, improving outcomes, extending services and reducing costs. Decision makers need to prioritise high-value needs and outcomes – and ensure they are exploiting the technology for real business ends, rather than reacting to a vendor agenda. This reinforces the importance of close cooperation between government, industry and patient groups. Healthcare belongs to us all – we must build its future together.
Andrew Harding, Head of Presale Solution Leadership, Fujitsu EMEIA