Medical diagnosis is mostly a process of elimination, as many doctors would be quick to point out.
But that is beginning to change with the introduction of Big Data and analysis in health care.
The tried and tested process of elimination, which can be time consuming, is set to be replaced by real-time tracking that will enable the healthcare industry to make more accurate diagnoses.
According to the research firm Gartner, the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) healthcare providers will have spent US$3 billion on IT products and services last year, of which $1.3bn will have been on telecoms services. Software spending for last year will have been stepped up 7.8 per cent to $382 million, and IT services will have grown 6.3 per cent to $379m compared with 2013 spending.
“Governments generally around the world are looking at technology as a way to improve services in general, the quality of life,” says Alex White, the vice president at VMware, a cloud-computing software solutions company. “If you can make that experience simpler, better, faster and cheaper, it will improve people’s lives.”
As part of the UAE Vision 2021, the Federal Government has been developing nationwide systems to support and integrate digital health services and technologies into its healthcare ecosystem.
The main burden on the region’s health system is diabetes and cardiovascular disease, both of which can benefit from Big Data.
“Big data can contribute to tackling cardiovascular disease,” says Dr Ravi Nair, the chairman of cardiovascular medicine at Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi. “We need a big database that examines all data and population to identify risks and drivers of cardiovascular disease.”
According to a recent report by the US-UAE Business Council, almost 90 per cent of deaths other than those from natural causes, in the UAE are due to chronic lifestyle-induced diseases such as diabetes, coronary and cardiovascular conditions and hypertension and cancer. Next year’s Arab Health Congress, one of the biggest events in the Mena calendar, will focus on Big Data and its uses in public health.
“To improve public-health policy results, we need to establish figures through a comprehensive diabetes registry involving all paediatric diabetes patients throughout the UAE and to study and analyse this data,” says Dr Amani Taha Osman, a consultant paediatric diabetologist at Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Al Ain.
“Comprehensive data and information will help improve diabetes care by understanding key trends of the country and identifying any attributes or factors that are unique to the region.”
Having a registry that tracks the results of medical trials or patient experiences can provide vital feedback for doctors and hospitals to make more informed decisions. Pharmaceutical companies are now experimenting with inserting radio frequency identification (RFID) chips and sensors into tablets and pills for drug trials, which can relay biometric data about the health of patients. This provides more accurate survey results and could help to expose physiological scenarios that may have gone unnoticed.
“There is, however, a big security and privacy aspect to this,” says John Swainson, the president of software at Dell.
“Information is central to making good decisions about short-term health problems and long-term episodic health issues,” he says. “To know what things work and what things don’t work, you need to track people and measure the results of treatments, perhaps over decades, not just over one hospital or doctor.”
Currently, these technological advancements are somewhat difficult to implement given restrictive legal requirements surrounding the collection and use of data such as medical health records. Today, it is the hospital that keeps your health records on file, but this may change as healthcare providers head towards cloud computing and virtualisation.
“Your health record will live with you, it will be stored on a smart card,” says Mr Swainson. “From a clinical point of view the integration of medical records will become a fact of life, when you come into a medical facility your medical record will be instantiated.”
This may also help to prevent patient information landing in the wrong hands and reduce the risk of treatment problems. A doctor visiting patients on a ward will have the ability to extract a patient’s records more accurately and securely without the need to print or download the information and carry physical copies of the records on which the handwriting maybe indecipherable.
“Electronic records are more consistent, you need to do the security and governance to ensure it is the right patient’s records. Moving all of that to the electronic you start to see new possibilities,” says Mr White.
“They can get to the ward, sign in [to the new database system] and by the patient’s bed have all the records that are available – from the last scans to blood results. They can have that information very quickly and diagnosis can be provided more quickly.”
The ability to carry your own medical records will provide easier access to treatment all around the world. It will allow patients to bypass each country’s jurisdiction on transfer and sharing of data and provide quicker and more accurate access to health care.
But it is not just in the diagnosis stage or health records that technology can have a transformative impact, the billing and aftercare service can also benefit from a digital boost to enable a speedier process and better communication between patient and doctor.
“Health care is an industry where technology has incredible potential to transform delivery of service,” says Mr Swainson.
“The challenge now is to provide more integrated experience from the admissions and billing process – all of the clinical and post clinical stuff.”
Like any business, hospitals are under pressure to advance and incorporate technology in a functional and convenient manner for all if they are to survive in an increasingly globalised world.
“Hospitals were built to last,” says Mr White. “The new mantra is going to be built for change. The services it provides is based on customer expectations and they are changing all the time. Today, technology is at the heart of everything and it is changing everything.”