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ROBOT DOCTORS AND BIG DATA: WHAT’S ON THE HORIZON FOR DIAGNOSIS

09 Jun 2014

By Taylor Hatmaker

Big Data

In the mobile age, long waits at the doctor’s office feel more profoundly frustrating than ever—after all, you’ve probably already shot off three emails, accepted a virtual meeting invite and refreshed your Facebook feed just sitting there for five minutes with your smartphone. Really, much about modern medicine feels anachronistic when pitted against the ease and immediacy of consumer technology in the last decade.

The medical world is caught in a balancing act at the expense of everyone: as patient numbers and diagnoses skyrocket, a national dearth of doctors is exploding into an industry-wide crisis. Meanwhile, tech-phobic privacy regulations and labyrinthine insurance protocols make a physician’s time more precious than ever before.

“As with most ‘next big things’ in each industry, the answer isn’t a product, and it’s especially not a device—it’s the ecosystem we build around it,” said Chaotic Moon CEO Ben Lamm.

Behold the ascent of telemedicine — an industry that encompasses everything from video conferencing and e-health patient portals to augmented reality and smart health apps that connect patient and practitioner like never before.

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DIAGNOSIS GOES MOBILE

Telemedicine is exploding onto the medical scene, and it’s all being powered by the advent of the wicked-fast, absurdly affordable computers. In the U.S., smartphone penetration hit 65% in the third quarter of 2013, and while the market is approaching, it’s still moving up. With Android and iOS dominating those numbers, mobile health apps for both platforms are taking off too.

Apps aren’t just being adopted by patients fed up with waiting rooms. Attracted to their mobility, speed, and affordability, doctors can choose from a growing array of mobile diagnostic tools, from free apps that help pin down proper dosage to smartphone attachments like a HIPAA-compliant digital otoscope.

“It’s great for serial evaluations and for following acute problems. Patients can see what I am describing to them, and have a better understanding of what the issues are,” said Dr. Leonard Reeves, a Family Physician who uses the CellScope Oto in his high volume practice at a free clinic in Georgia. “I think as handheld technology continues to improve, so will healthcare. This will not replace the human element in the room, but it certainly gives physicians more opportunity to educate patients.”

A 2013 analysis by Kantar Media surveyed the habits of more than 3,000 physicians in 21 specialties and found one message, loud and clear: more and more doctors are putting smartphones to work. Of physicians surveyed, 43% used their smartphones to reference medication data, up 13% from 2012, while 39% used smartphones to find and perform clinical calculations. A whopping 31% make prescribing decisions by smartphone — up 10% from the prior year.

In another study conducted last year, AmericanEHR found that 51% of physicians who used tablets in their practice consulted the devices to access electronic health records (EHRs) on a daily basis. The study suggested that tablets were preferred over smartphones for EHR purposes, which makes sense given that their larger, more readable displays could more clearly display electronic patient data.

Electronic medical records are superior to paperwork in nearly every way, but there’s plenty of room for refinement and innovation in the space. “As the adoption of mobile devices increases, so do the expectations of clinical users,” said Thomas Stringham, co-founder of AmericanEHR Partners. “The health IT sector and app developers have an opportunity to improve the quality and usefulness of clinical mobile apps.”

REMOTE DOCTORS, CYBORG DOCTORS AND ROBOT DOCTORS

Mobile technology is making big waves in the doctor’s office, but it’s also poised to take TNT to the notion of the doctor’s office altogether. Remote diagnostic tools like video and web messaging already streamline the diagnostic process in many practices. Affordable yet sophisticated mobile health devices that enable remote monitoring of relevant vital signs and symptoms and funnel them into useful, aggregated diagnostic data are gaining a foothold. But out at the far edge of telemedicine, a disruptive near-future of more radical reinventions of diagnosis comes into view.

With its lightweight, hands-free design, Google Glass is starting to prove its mettle in medical settings. In Houston, Texas, Memorial Hermann Hospital — home of the first live-tweeted open heart and brain surgery — recently treated bed-bound pediatric patients to a tour of the zoo across the street using Glass. Beyond brightening the day of its young patients, Memorial Hermann has big plans for Google’s augmented reality visor, which drapes useful data over the wearer’s field of vision. It’s easy to imagine something like Glass as the next evolution of the iconic doctor’s clipboard, providing an instant virtual dashboard rich in patient health data that doesn’t get in the way.

“This first at Memorial Hermann sets the stage for the future use of Google Glass in other areas of medicine and patient care,” said David Bradshaw, Chief Information Officer at Memorial Hermann Hospital. “This time, we enhanced the patient experience by offering our patients a unique opportunity to ‘leave’ the hospital while still receiving quality care at their bedside. As a next step, we want to explore the technology in clinical and care delivery settings.”

Remember Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy-winning supercomputer? Following its game show stint, IBM put the advanced AI supercomputer to work in medicine. In partnership with health insurance group WellPoint and New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Watson excelled in its first commercial gig, displaying a 90% accuracy rate in utilization management decisions for lung cancer cases.

While Watson does the heavy data lifting, more literal robot doctors are already a reality too. From the creators of the Roomba (yes, the endearing little disc-shaped vacuum), the advanced telepresence robot known as the RP-VITA does a whole lot more than clean floors. Equipped with a video screen, internet connectivity and ports for digital diagnostic instruments, the RP-VITA is a robotic mobile health station that can glide from patient to patient, essentially enabling instant access to a specialist anywhere in the world.

We might have an arsenal of robotic doctors at the ready, but Chaotic Moon Co-Founder William Hurley doesn’t believe that leaps in efficiency will come at the cost of personal patient care. “I think that the more the tools advance the less we’ll be going to the doctor,” Hurley said. “New network speeds, things like ingestible computers, and other advances will see diagnosis happening through other means. Let’s face it, doctors simply can’t know everything.” And that’s okay.

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THE FUTURE OF MEDICINE: SOONER THAN YOU THINK

We’re nearing a critical juncture, one in which the medical world catches up to the explosive trajectory of the tech industry. “We have the sensors to collect the data, new ways to store the data and networks that can handle moving that information back and forth in real time,” Lamm said. “All the pieces are there, the vision is in place and we’re all just iterating our way toward it, while security and regulatory industries try to keep up.”

With the stage set, the future doctor’s office doesn’t at all resemble what we know now. It’s an endless corridor built brick-by-virtual-brick with rich data — and it leads to places we could have never imagined. We only need to open the door.

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