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Health in your hands: how data and AI are empowering patients

Friendly robot looking at the camera

The Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden has a very fitting example of extra attention being paid to patients – a friendly robot is being used to significantly reduce the stress of children suffering from cancer.

The robot itself doesn’t add any medical procedures to the existing treatment, but its friendly demeanour and in-built screen with games designed to inform children of their treatment procedure ahead of time, has proven to be a great help in reducing the fear of these young patients. In addition, the robot also helps reduce the stress of parents, and saves healthcare experts both time and money, by reducing the amount of time and people required per treatment session.

Lisa Karin Bergström, practitioner, nursing manager and project lead states that “We can’t always see cancer coming, or stop it, but we can control the stress children feel, and help them feel happier and more in control.”

Healthcare in your hands
Putting patients first should provide them with newer tools to not only make their lives easier, but to also provide a more personalised level of care. Virtual hospitals provide a convenient, easy to use experience which allows patients to track their health and communicate with health professionals remotely, from the comfort of their own homes. This saves patients time, and travel, which is particularly beneficial for the elderly.

In Finland, Helsinki University Hospital’s Virtual Health Village is a prime example of bringing healthcare directly into the hands of its patients. The online cloud service, based on the Microsoft Azure and Dynamics 365, provides information and support including medical care for patients, and tools for healthcare professionals. Patients have access to virtual buildings dedicated to different life situations and symptoms, such as pain management, rehabilitation, mental health, and weight management.

Virpi Rauta, PhD, eMBA, Doctor in nephrology who is involved with the kidney-damage section of the Virtual Health Village states that “We have to get rid of old habits when we adopt these new tools. It’s multidisciplinary work – clinicians, IT workers, nurses and patients all worked together to help create our kidney app.”

Empowering patients and putting their own healthcare within their control, is key. The kidney disease app in the Virtual Health Hospital shares real patient experiences and how they are coping with their treatment, to help other patients feel that their disease is manageable. Patients are more likely to listen to people going through the same experiences, and this genuine relatability helps morale, while increasing the chances of them correctly following their treatment plan.

In Scotland, technology is bringing personalised care to patients suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) – a condition which affects 1.2 million people in the UK, and is the second most common cause of emergency hospital admissions. Without treatment, the symptoms (which include breathlessness, chest infections and a persistent cough) get worse, but a new trial brings an easier way to manage the illness to patients, from the comfort of their own homes.

Patients use wearable devices combined with Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform to remotely monitor their breathing. AI algorithms, based on machine learning, are then used to monitor results, and automatically detect and predict issues, so that healthcare experts can vary their treatment accordingly, based on their individual needs.

This not only saves patients from making regular trips to the hospital, it also means that if their condition gets worse, their healthcare providers will automatically be alerted, allowing timely treatment, and a better quality of life.

Chris Carlin, a Consultant Respiratory Physician involved in the trial, states that “It’s about delivering treatment earlier by using data. If we can empower patients to self-manage their condition, we can significantly reduce hospital admissions. That self-management might be helping them with their breathing, escalating their existing treatment, recommending new treatment or reaching out to the community respiratory team.”

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In another corner of the world, one of the oldest diseases known to mankind – leprosy – is being treated with AI. The Novartis Foundation and Microsoft are developing an AI-enabled digital health tool and a Leprosy Intelligent Image Atlas to help the early detection of leprosy.

Over 200,000 people are diagnosed with leprosy every year, with Brazil, India, and Indonesia accounting for about 80 percent of new cases. The disease is made more complicated by the fact that it can be difficult to diagnose, and if left untreated, can cause other disabilities and spread to others.

Microsoft and the Novartis Foundation are collaborating with local investigators from Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in Brazil to develop a machine learning algorithm which examines anonymized images before automatically detecting if a patient has leprosy.

To save patients (who are often in remote rural areas) from travelling long distances to hospitals, they are able to instead visit local businesses and have their photos taken there, before the shots are examined by the AI programme. The imagery and AI code are planned to be made publicly accessible at a later stage to empower leprosy researchers to accelerate research excellence in this field, leading to better outcomes.

Dr. Ann Aerts, Head of Novartis Foundation states that “Bundling expertise from the health and tech sectors to pioneer innovative digital health solutions such as this one, can make it possible to reimagine the way we fight leprosy. Early detection and prompt treatment of patients remains the best way to interrupt leprosy transmission. Together with Microsoft we are pioneering an innovative digital tool to accelerate leprosy detection, to make this ancient disease history once and for all.”

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