Prevention is Within Reach With Artificial Intelligence
Data science and advanced analytics are driving the digitalization of healthcare systems. Smart, platform-based applications are designed to further improve the quality of medical care and provide personalized solutions to manage, treat and, ultimately, prevent disease.
Robots support surgeons in the operating room, while artificial intelligence is used to evaluate X-ray and MRI images. Blood and urine samples are analyzed in labs completely automatically. The digital transformation is revolutionizing healthcare in many ways. According to the German IT association Bitkom, video consultations have become part of everyday care in more than 25,000 doctors' offices in Germany since the coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult to see a doctor.
Scientists, physicians and engineers have been working on entirely new digital applications for quite some time. Their goal is to not only detect diseases at an early stage, but eventually prevent them altogether. "The diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular diseases, for example, are already technically advanced and therefore able to save many lives. However, preventing diseases is even better," says Dr. Enise Lauterbach, a cardiologist from Trier, Germany. Inspired by a patient, she started her own business, LEMOA medical, after having gathered years of experience in hospitals and in cardiological rehab.
Prevention is the best treatment
Her startup created "Herz-Held" [Heart Hero], an app for heart failure patients. "It is a digital coach with a smart early warning system," as she puts it. "The app is now used by test patients, has mastered simulations without any issues, and meets the requirements of digital healthcare." The app collects patients’ data such as blood pressure, heart rate, weight and daily activities and compares it to a pool of data using a platform-based approach. "This allows us to identify patterns and intervene early, ideally in a preventive way," states the experienced cardiologist. She sees significant gaps in care for more than 2.5 million heart failure cases. "The best health care is prevention," underlines Lauterbach.
Anita Kraker von Schwarzenfeld is deeply convinced that integrated digital solutions with a broad database can close gaps in medicine. She leads a multidisciplinary and cross-functional team in the pharmaceutical division of Bayer that is developing new digital health solutions. "In our holistic, data-driven approach we can work with probabilities, whereas doctors can often only rely on patients' subjective descriptions of symptoms." Her team focuses on developing integrated applications for women. Kraker von Schwarzenfeld had previously been involved in this field at a start-up in the United States. While it has been known that women are often disadvantaged in healthcare, science only recently started to understand that women and men may even experience different symptoms and causes for the same diseases.
Data is essential in medicine
Women's and men's bodies differ at the cellular level. There are significant differences that play a key role in the development of cardiovascular disease, a phenomenon that has been studied extensively in the field of myocardial infarction. "However, this has received little attention in practice. Heart attacks in women often remain undetected and therefore not treated," Dr. Lauterbach emphasizes. If they are detected, women often don't receive optimal treatment because women are often underrepresented in clinical trials. "We are missing a lot of data. Big Data is essential for women's healthcare!" And men, too, would benefit individually from data-based, personalized medical insights.
Bayer’s Integrated Care approach goes even further. In the holistic healthcare concept, the teams also consider the general conditions of life. Using anthropological and ethnographic methods, they shed light on issues such as: What role does a person's nature or origin play in his or her disease? How has individual behavior contributed to it? How can a patient change individual daily habits to improve the recovery process? For Kraker von Schwarzenfeld, it's about providing concrete and personal help in dealing with health conditions, and about making small changes over a longer time period to encourage and support patients to adopt health-promoting behaviors. Ideally, the technology takes all relevant information, particular circumstances, lifestyle, nutrition and activity into account. Artificial intelligence could then identify patterns of unhealthy behavior and contribute to patients’ health using the digital platform's comparative data.
More autonomy for the patient
"Digital health applications can give patients more self-determination," emphasizes Dr. Lauterbach. "A patient who is aware of his or her own health data can learn a lot and become his or her own expert". She is convinced that well-informed and actively involved patients no longer focus on the disease, but rather on what supports their own health. According to both experts, the digitalization of the healthcare system as a driving factor will change and improve the lives of many patients. Caregivers and relatives could also be involved, but at the same time relieved through monitoring and remote care. Digitally linked systems could also help compensate for the shortage of nursing staff in our aging societies and also optimize medical care for people in underserved areas.