Finally, after decades of incremental change, we are now seeing an explosion in healthcare innovation, utilizing new technologies and techniques to deliver models of care that include and empower patients and caregivers, as well as driving greater quality, safety and efficiency.
Sure, not all the innovation that we see is helpful, or even safe, and we need to take care to assess the evidence, choosing only ideas that show genuine benefits.
However, for those of us living in predominantly government-funded, universal healthcare systems, we seem to have woken up to the fact governments not only don’t have all the solutions – they often aren’t well placed to define what the problem actually is!
To that end, here is a summary of five top digital health innovations that are driving significant improvements in the delivery of healthcare, often through a different framing of the problem being solved.
Apopo – Organic artificial intelligence
Tuberculosis is now the world’s leading cause of death due to an infectious disease, claiming 1.4 million lives per year, and representing a health crisis in a number of African nations.
However, basic tests for Tuberculosis (TB) are not always reliable, resulting in missed diagnoses and false positives. More reliable tests for TB exist, but can be slow and relatively expensive – not a great combination for developing countries.
In response this problem, Apopo (a Belgian NGO) is using Pavlovian conditioning to train African Giant Pouched Rats to detect positive TB samples using their highly-developed sense of smell. It takes about 9 months to train a rat, and once trained they can screen thousands of sputum samples a month. To date, 58 rats have been trained.
This innovative approach has a low cost and provides highly reliable detection, providing vital access to affordable testing for many people at risk of contracting TB in the developing world.
AirRater – Sensor networks and crowdsourced symptom data
AirRater is a mobile app that helps the citizens of Tasmania, Australia who are living with asthma, hay fever and other lung conditions to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Through a network of sensors installed across the state, AirRater monitors smoke (often as a result of bushfires), temperature and pollen levels in multiple locations. Users can then enter the symptoms they are experiencing in their current location. AirRater uses this crowdsourced symptom data, combined with sensor data, to build a model of air quality across the state. This allows users to understand the extent to which current symptoms are attributable to air quality in their location.
AirRater helps users to proactively manage their asthma, hay fever and other lung conditions through the provision of real-time data that hasn’t previously been available.
Beat2phone – Consumerized medical-grade ECG
Beat2phone is a Finnish company offering a medical-grade ECG device for consumers that live streams data to a smartphone from a wearable chest-strap. Designed to help identify asymptomatic atrial fibrillation – a condition that causes an irregular heart rate – the device uses proprietary algorithms to process and analyze the signal, provide automatic detection of the presence of heart abnormalities and enable instant feedback to patients, relatives and health providers.
Innovation like this is finally fulfilling the promise of wearable technology – to bring medical-grade technology to the patient, supporting early intervention and diagnosis, and ensuring that significant insights mined from patient-gathered, clinically useful data can be sent automatically to health providers.
Lifeguard Health Networks – Innovative mobile-based models of care
US-based Lifeguard Health Networks provides a novel, low-cost, mobile-based model of care for managing a range of conditions, but with a strong focus on integrated cancer care.
LifeguardMobile allows health providers to define care plans that monitor cancer symptoms (i.e. patient reported outcomes), vital sign observations from consumer health devices, medications adherence, exercise, nutrition, sleep and more. Notifications remind a patient to regularly enter data about their adherence to the care plan.
Once data is captured, it flows back to the health provider, where it is automatically assessed against thresholds defined by the oncologist care team in a personalized care plan. Patients whose data violates these thresholds show up on an at-risk patient dashboard and notify the care team to intervene.
In addition, a patient’s family and friends (their circle of care) can be used to provide extra motivation. When a patient reports a single poor symptom score or missed medication, the circle of care is notified, allowing them to try to nudge the patient back to health and compliance.
Where LifeguardMobile really comes into its own is transitional care for cancer patients moving back into community care following hospital treatment. This new model of care allows health providers to undertake early intervention and prevent hospital readmission.
PatientsLikeMe – The power of aggregated patient data
PatientsLikeMe is a global digital health community where patients gather together to share data and insights about their conditions. It was developed by an ALS patient and his family who struggled to find information to guide their decisions, so they launched PatientsLikeMe to connect to other ALS patients. It quickly expanded to include patients with any condition, and now over 500,000 patients with more than 2,700 conditions share their stories, as well as information on their conditions, treatments and symptoms.
One story can be powerful. The effect of data aggregated across thousands of people with the same condition is changing the way in which we deliver healthcare.
Aggregated patient data is now available on a huge large scale across such a range of conditions, and it offers insights that are compelling to patients, health providers, pharmaceutical companies and medical researchers.
With creativity and innovation of this standard, healthcare is a very exciting industry in which to work right now. Bring on disruption through world-class innovation!
 WHO Global Tuberculosis Report 2016, Available from: http://www.who.int/tb/publications/global_report/gtbr2016_executive_summary.pdf?ua=1