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You Have the Whole (Medical) World in Your Hand

How smartphones, big data and artificial intelligence are helping to prevent, intercept and manage disease

The supercomputer in your pocket is already collecting an incredible amount of data about your life—and new capabilities are being added almost daily. Your smartphone can collect and analyze information from its own sensors, as well as using apps designed for specific activities, such as fitness, diet and disease management trackers. We also have a huge amount of data generated from years of interacting with the healthcare system—doctors’ records, x-rays, test results, and much more.

The problem is that these data are widely scattered among different hospitals, doctors, systems and servers. “The systems in the U.S. are so fragmented,” explains Sandi Peterson, Group Worldwide Chair for Johnson & Johnson. “We need to figure out how to actually unleash all of that data.”

“The systems in the U.S. are so fragmented. We need to figure out how to actually unleash all of that data.”

Sandi Peterson, Group Worldwide Chair of Johnson & Johnson

That’s why one of the most important technology advances is taking place behind the scenes. Companies are creating software that can extract data from any electronic record system. This information can be put into a “data lake” where various parts can be combined and easily accessed. “It is a really interesting time to be able to make that breakthrough,” says Peterson.

This ability to combine once-disparate medical records opens the door to seeing previously unrecognized signals in the data noise. Imagine the additional power of such analyses when they include records from scores of millions of patients’ own devices.

The new connections are also changing how ordinary people interact with their doctors. Going to the physician for a routine checkup could become a thing of the past; constant, passive mobile tracking of a person’s health factors can identify when it’s time to see a physician, instead of making appointments on an arbitrary date. When people do see a physician, it will be a much more meaningful interaction. Instead of taking basic, static measurements—weight, blood pressure, resting heart rate—your doctor will have access to a digital chart showing trends in all those numbers since the last visit. That will make it easier to highlight areas of concern or improvements to celebrate.

Moreover, with artificial intelligence and machine learning, our connected devices will get better at recognizing, tracking and diagnosing symptoms. We will have the availability to replace in-person visits with at-home diagnostic self-checks using devices connected to smartphones. There may be no need for time-consuming and uncomfortable experiences such as mammograms or blood-work for diabetes.

Already, it’s possible to connect a $99 credit card-sized EKG monitor from start-up AliveCor to your smartphone, collect the data with an app and immediately send the information to doctors anywhere in the world. Other lifesaving uses may include spotting irregular heart rhythms that can presage heart attacks and strokes.

One company, Graphwear Technologies, is even creating a smartphone-linked wearable patch that measures glucose levels, blood electrolyte amounts, and hydration without the need for a drop of blood.

Some of the technology on the horizon does seem to leap from the pages of science fiction. The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, for instance, is awarding $10 million to a company that can make a hand-held device, similar to the tricorder in Star Trek, capable of monitoring vital signs and diagnosing 15 diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, strep throat, stroke, melanoma, and HIV. One of the two finalists for the prize, a system called DxtER™, incorporates years of experience in clinical emergency medicine with an artificial intelligence engine that can instantly interpret the data coming from the sensors.

These advances can not only save lives, but money as well. In one 16-month pilot project, 50 people suffering from congestive heart failure—and an average of seven other chronic illnesses—in rural Arizona were outfitted with home monitors that measured weight, blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen level. The data were automatically sent to a regional health center. The results: The average number of days each patient spent in the hospital plunged to just over five days from 14, saving more than $90,000 per person.

Meanwhile, pacemakers have shrunk to the size of a vitamin capsule, and routine genome sequencing is within reach. “In genomics today, we are doing things for a few hundred dollars that five or ten years ago would have cost $10 million,” says Othman Laraki, co-founder and CEO of Color Genomics. “That’s pretty amazing.” In January 2017, Illumina CEO Francis deSouza unveiled a new sequencing machine fast enough to read an entire genome in an hour and at an eventual target cost of $100.

These innovations, and many more, have the potential to bring profound change. When the first human genome was sequenced in 2003, pioneers like J. Craig Venter predicted a new era of medicine, in which discoveries about the molecular mechanisms of Alzheimer’s, cancer, and many other diseases would usher in new and better treatments. That era has been slow in coming, but the explosion of new genetic data may now put it within reach.

“We now have the opportunity to really understand disease at a molecular level,” says Rich Heyman, founder of cancer drug developers Aragon and Seragon. “In oncology, we can literally diagnose the phenotype from the genotype of the disease.”

As David Ewing Duncan, CEO and Curator of Arc Fusion and a Health Strategist-in-Residence for IDEO, puts it: “I think the 21st century is about connecting up all of the things that we took apart the last 500 years.”

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