Digital health is one of the hottest topics in the health care industry, but it is not the big pharma, medtech and biotech companies that are dominating the field. It is companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon who have been collecting data on the world’s population for years.
Shomit Ghose, General Partner in ONSET Ventures, and Vwani Roychowdhury, Professor of Electrical Engineering at UCLA spoke about the potential of digital health care at BioInnovation Institute earlier this month at the mini-symposium headlined: Can digital health enable reduced healthcare costs?
Shomit and Vwani met each other in 2006 when they were both working with big data in the online advertising space. This was when big data was first applied to drive consumers’ behavior towards buying.
Today, Shomit Ghose and Vwani Roychowdhury are both engaged in how big data can massively impact health care as we know it. According to them, it is up to entrepreneurs in life science and engineering to find ways to apply big data in digital healthcare, so it can be available to the world’s population.
We talked with them when they visited BioInnovation Institute.
What can digital health do for us?
Vwani: The big realization is that we can determine a person’s state of health through behavior and interactions with others. What you say, where you go and what you look up on the internet comprise a footprint that can be used to reliably infer both your current mental and health status and how they have changed over time. Analysis of your tweets and messages can predict the onset of depression and wearables on your wrist can determine Arrhythmia just to name a few examples. We all share many similar characteristics, and we are not as unique as we would like to think.
Shomit: It is even possible to learn a lot about the state of a person’s health by analyzing a picture of the person’s face. Traditionally, you go see a doctor and have biological samples taken to be diagnosed and digital health is not a replacement for that, but a picture analysis has shown to be very powerful. This type of diagnostic requires no psychical interaction which makes it much more accessible to people who live in a remote area or don’t have enough income to consult a doctor. With digital health, you can still be diagnosed and maybe even treated.
When did you realize the potential of this?
Shomit: I have always had the view, that truth is in the data. The change is in the technology – the smartphones – that has enabled us to collect data and make use of it.
Vwani: The best platform for improving and making health care widely accessible is through data but a lot needs to be done before such a platform’s full potential is utilized. We have the computing ability to process and analyze diverse datasets for individual patients in real-time, and with smartphones, we can provide immediate feedback to both patients and doctors. What we are lacking are policies and incentives for building out the capabilities of this platform, where the treatment and management of multiple diseases and health conditions are successfully implemented. With enough success stories of data-enabled health management, we will reach a tipping point where a societal consensus emerges that we must work with digital healthcare.
Which model do you see for digital health?
Currently, we are seeing three different setups. In China, the government owns the data. In the US, the companies own the data and in Europe, the individual owns the data. Of these three, the European model is the only one that scales to the other two populations. This is a powerful position for European innovators.
What are the downsides to digital health?
Digital health has great potential for bad and for good but that is no different than any other human inventions. The digital train has left the station and you cannot roll this back. If you try to rule out the bad, you will also rule out the good. We need policies and to constantly question how we want to use this.
It’s a matter of trust and the only way to adopt a system with the potential for abuse is to build enough safeguards and enough positive impact so that the benefits outweigh potential risks. The population already trust their phones and bring them everywhere. The next generation will also trust whatever sensors we put on them to detect the individual’s health. We just need policies and ways to apply the science to create enough success stories so that a tipping point is reached. People must be willing to redefine their concept of privacy while putting enough safeguards in place to prevent massive abuse.
Shomit: That is where an initiative like the BII comes in. BII can help map technology to impact. Thanks to mobile phones, digital health can meet patients where they are. Thanks to machine learning, digital health can build our bridges to care.