Can digitalisation and Big Data make us healthier

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Tablets that dissolve in your stomach and then send out a signal about correct intake; contact lenses that constantly measure eye pressure to prevent glaucoma: many things that currently sound like science fiction may in fact be everyday forms of medical treatment in the future.

The healing arts, so far not affected by digitalisation to any significant degree, are about to change.

That entails treatment options for patients, simplification for doctors, business opportunities for companies, and also risks for data protection.

Around the world, the digital health market is expected to more than double by 2020, to reach a total volume of US$200bil (RM779.10bil), according to the Roland Berger consultancy firm.

Investors have put their trust in growth companies that are developing health apps for smartphones.

Such apps could, for example. record blood pressure and body temperature, deliver preliminary diagnoses, and recommend that the owner of the device go to the doctor.

In addition, electronic patient files could improve treatment and cut costs by US$80bil (RM311.64bil) for the health system as a whole, says Thilo Kaltenbach, a partner at Roland Berger.

In many countries, hospitals and research institutions are already producing huge amounts of digitalised data, such as x-rays, lab results and doctors’ letters.

However, that information is only rarely combined for thorough analysis.

Patients, in turn, often struggle to get the correct diagnosis from doctors, and they could benefit from the availability of data on similar medical cases or longer-term experiences.

In Germany, a project is underway to bridge the gap between patient treatment and research.

The idea is to help researchers gain a better understanding of illnesses – something that is urgently needed to find new prevention, diagnosis and treatment options.

If this project is implemented across the board, hospitals and doctors will be able to access patient data on a common interface and to draw on all the relevant information available in the entire health system.

Britain has had a good experience with the integration of data on people who are actually affected by medical issues, says Susanne Mauersberg, a health expert at the federation of German consumer advocacy organisations.

“With big data, it is essential to include more patient experiences in research,” she explains.

Doctors’ representatives also welcome the use of anonymised treatment data.

And yet, for such progress to be generally acceptable, high scientific and ethical standards need to be adhered to and the patient needs to retain control over use of their details. Data protection needs to be enforced.

In this regard, Mauersberg is less impressed with the example of the United States, where specific patient profiles are used.

Private firms are also interested in the financial and medical value of patient data.

The software giant SAP, for example, is working with Berlin’s Charite university hospital on a project that seeks to improve treatment for chronically ill patients through the use of patient data.

“Hospitals have tons of data that they cannot use at all on their own,” SAP expert Kai Sachs told a conference in Frankfurt, Germany.

Analysing this data and making that analysis available to doctors could improve patient treatment.

The data may prompt a warning about heart damage, for example, when the patient’s resting heart rate is regularly too high or when data fluctuations indicate there may be a damaging build-up of fluid.

SAP warns the project is only in the prototype stage for now, and that it respects all relevant data protection standards.

At any rate, digital projects are not cheap, and money is not something hospitals can generally spare.

Technology is only one hurdle for digitally enabled health improvements, and funding may prove harder to obtain.