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November 18, 2014

How Connectivity Engages Patients & Healthcare Professionals

Posted by Ashish Goel (View Profile | View All Posts) at 7:55 AM

Soon we'll all be plugged into a connected healthcare network in which doctors can track our slightest missteps

The life sciences sector is a tale of two worlds. On the one hand, virulent strains of diseases are taxing governments and healthcare systems worldwide. Experts predict that there will be a significant shortage of doctors over the next two decades. And pharmaceutical R&D pipelines are drying up.

On the other hand, mobile technology is revolutionizing the industry. Patients will be able to relay important health information to their caregivers at the flick of a wrist. Epidemiologists will be able to track and predict outbreaks of disease by parsing mountains of data they receive from patients around the world. And the traditional visit to the doctor's office - with all that waiting in the reception room, surrounded by sick patients - might be a thing of the past.

Indeed, those two worlds are colliding, and it will depend on the power of connected devices to overcome the growing challenges facing the life sciences sector. In other words, this tale of two worlds is on the fast track to becoming one - one in which problems like runaway viruses and physician shortages are solved in part by Information Technology and connectivity. Another benefit of IT is that it is that researchers can reduce cycle time.

Remember the pedometer? I once attended a conference at which every participant received one with his registration materials. We all fastened them to our shoes and at the end of the week, the attendee with the most ground covered won an award. I think she walked a total of 20 miles just in and around the conference center. The pedometer, as crude an instrument as it is by today's standards, was a forerunner to the concept of wearable health technology.

The difference today is that such technology is connected to a greater platform. In the old days we scribbled down our pedometer's reading and compared mileage. Soon we'll all be plugged into a connected healthcare network in which doctors can track our slightest missteps and our pulses, too. A colleague of mine recently pointed out that mobile medical devices will soon require very little power to accomplish these feats. That's important, because they'll always be turned on. After all, a wearable turned off is just a bracelet.

Add Big Data to the constant monitoring of our vital signs. That means healthcare providers that are connected to us via wearable platforms will already know our past medical histories. Combined with real-time nerve and muscle movements, every person becomes a unique patient that can be monitored and provided for even if a real, live doctor isn't on call. What's promising about such connectivity is that it doesn't require the kind of active participation of the owner as, say, today's smart phones do. They'll be hard-wired, so to speak, to connect with healthcare providers when a person's blood pressure crosses a certain threshold.

One of my favorite innovations is to use a microphone - not exactly cutting edge technology - in an entirely new way. A sensitive microphone can measure blood pressure by listening to the wearer's heartbeat and hearing the pulses and reverberations of nearby muscle tissue. All that is then synthesized and sent to a healthcare provider.

Of course, pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms wouldn't mind receiving all that data, too. They'll want it for different reasons than your local hospital, but what they do with it could transform how prescription drugs are made. In fact, I recently discussed the concept of "coopetition" at a conference (not the one during which we wore pedometers) and predicted how digital connectivity will help Big Pharma deal with mounting regulations and industry red tape. If one organization has spent time and money figuring out a way through a complex maze of regulations, then it might use connectivity to show other biotech firms the same path. Granted, they're still competitors, but most everyone can agree that when less money is spent on regulations, there's more to be allocated towards R&D.

Speaking of biotechnology, connectivity will give it a big boost. Why? Well, imagine mapping the genome of every human being on earth. If all that data is stored in a secure place for researchers and scientists, drug discovery and treatment will take on an entirely new face. If doctors have access to billions of genetic markers, they'll naturally create an understanding of how diseases affect different people. And their treatments will be customized as such.

Many enterprises in the connected healthcare space have advocated for the construction of reliable data storage facilities that will house electronic patient records. If companies can establish public trust by constructing facilities that ensure the privacy and confidentiality of medical records, then connectivity will involve even more than just the sharing of genetic data and sequencing. It's a scientific given that the larger the sample size, the more detailed the outcomes in an experiment. So whereas some R&D trials dealt with hundreds or thousands of test subjects, soon connectivity will allow vast experiments involving tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of people.

The task then becomes how to sift through such vast databases to make any sense of it all. Yet the beauty of digital connectivity is that with Big Data-enabled tools, the analysis becomes as natural and effortless as running a software program. Granted, we're still in the early stages of delivering on these promises, but consider what the world has already experienced. Take the outbreak of the Ebola virus. World health officials have been able to track and to contain it in an extraordinarily efficient manner - even in countries that have small public health budgets.

Connectivity through Information Technology and software makes the world a smaller place. That fact has enormous potential for the advancement of healthcare and medical knowledge. When we as a global community share our challenges, our solutions come to us all the more quickly.

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