Tech, data drive healthcare changes

The future of healthcare is here. Rural patients can get cognitive-behavioral treatment for depression through an interactive website; doctors and nurses can help a patient over email or text message; Google can find patterns of flu outbreaks based on search terms; and a bracelet can record a patient’s vital signs and send them real-time to a doctor. 

Technology is evolving quickly and healthcare is advancing with it. Dr. Ana Viamonte Ros, director of medical staff development for Baptist Health international and the first woman to head Florida’s Department of Health, presented on big ideas emerging in healthcare in the coming decade at the Cayman Islands Healthcare Conference last week. 

“Two of three Americans go to ‘Doctor Google’ first,” Dr. Ros said. Recent research, she said, found that 75 percent of people in the United States are interested in digital services for healthcare, whether that’s websites, smartphone apps or other online offerings. “There’s a lot of demand for patients to get involved in their own care,” she said. 

“Patients want surprisingly mundane offerings,” she said, like online medical records, cost comparisons and other simple information online. 

Wearable devices, Dr. Ros said, are also giving doctors and patients more choices. Things like the FitBit, which tracks a wearer’s steps, she said, “have huge potential in clinical care, particularly for the elderly.” Simple-looking bracelets can already monitor someone’s heart rate, blood oxygen levels and other vital signs and tell someone if a patient falls. 

Soon, she said, a device like the FitBit could track the number of times a patient coughs or goes to the bathroom. The devices can then transmit all the health information back to a doctor or nurse for monitoring and alert a caregiver if there are problems. 

A study in Boston found that home monitoring reduced readmissions by half, not with wearable devices but by doctors and nurses regularly checking in with patients by phone or online. “Telehealth is expected to grow exponentially,” she said. 

Telehealth can be as simple as an automated phone system to remind patients to take their medicines and follow treatment plans. It can also give rural patients access to doctors at far-flung hospitals to treat mental health problems or go through physical rehabilitation programs. 

All of these online services and wearable devices produce a lot of data. Even searching for medical terms in a search engine like Google can give public health officials a new tool to fight disease. Dr. Ros said last year Google was able to use data from searches about flu symptoms to track flu trends with 90 percent accuracy. 

IBM’s Watson supercomputer, famous for beating out the reigning human champions on Jeopardy! in 2011, can now take a patient’s symptoms and history and determine the likelihood of a patient’s diagnosis with up to 90 percent accuracy. IBM has a new cloud-based system for Watson with, according to the company, one of the largest healthcare databases in the world. The U.S.-based computing system works with medical records, along with its vast library and machine learning abilities, to reduce readmissions, automate outreach to patients and improve engagement. 

All of this new technology is improving the work of doctors, but also, Dr. Ros said, empowering patients. People can search their own conditions to ask doctors better questions, get second opinions online, and shop around for the best and least expensive doctors and hospitals. 

“Around the world, costs are rising quickly,” Dr. Ros said. She noted that much of the increased costs come from unnecessary tests and procedures. She said there’s a new emerging trend to pay doctors on results, not the number of patients they see and tests they order. 

The new systems and online tools promote transparency for doctors and hospitals so patients and policymakers can understand how money is spent and where it’s wasted. 

Wearable devices, such as the FitBit, are growing in popularity.
Wearable devices, such as the FitBit, are growing in popularity.