Patients now in the driver’s seat with medical technology
From a bespoke suit to personalised licence plates, consumers are willing to pay extra for something that is specific to them.
The latest and perhaps the most worthwhile bespoke service is in the healthcare industry, where the UAE is among those pioneering the sector. New technology is now allowing doctors and healthcare providers to offer solutions that cater to a person’s DNA and genetics.
“Through the DNA blueprint of an individual, we are able to determine their future risks of developing diseases,” says Dr Nasim Ashraf, the founder and chief medical officer at the DNA Health Centre in Abu Dhabi. “Each of us inherits our own unique variation of the genetic code. We can’t change the hardwiring of our genetic code but epigenetic factors such as lifestyle and diet can radically change what our genes do.”
Understanding how our genes behave can alert us to our risks of developing diseases such as diabetes, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis or Alzheimer’s and how they may react to medication or changes in lifestyle.
By combining this with the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and deep machine learning, the healthcare sector is set to undergo a revolution that will make medicine personal to each patient.
“AI is everywhere, it is changing the world and it is difficult to spend the day without having an encounter with it,” says Abdul Hamid Al Halabi, the business development lead for health care at the US tech company Nvidia.
From smartphones that automatically create calendar reminders from your emails to driverless cars, machines are quickly learning more about our trends and habits and can begin to predict what we may do. By applying this technology to the healthcare sector AI can learn to predict how our genes may react.
“I have three children and their interests are so different that I buy them different toys when I take them to a toy store, so why give them all the same medication when they’re sick?” says Mr Al Halabi.
This one-size-fits-all approach to treating illnesses will fade in the future, as a patient’s genomes and DNA make-up as well as analysis about their environment will be taken into consideration when treatment is offered.
By analysing a person’s genes against a database that tracks diseases across the world, a computer would have a better and quicker chance of correctly identifying problems and risks according to Mr Al Halabi.
Back in 2012, the accuracy rate of computers correctly identifying diseases stood at 80 per cent – today the accuracy rate has jumped by 10 per cent, according to Nvidia.
It is technology that is paving the way for self-diagnosis, but a more accurate one than simply searching for your symptoms on Google and making a decision based on the results.
The California-based Sense.ly has created a mobile app with a “virtual nurse” called Molly who asks patients various questions to determine whether they need medical assistance or not. The company is trialling the technology with the UK’s national health service to cut back demand on doctors and hospitals.
In the UAE, a similar, but more personal service is on offer. The Abu Dhabi Telemedicine Centre (ADTC) provides medical assistance to patients over the phone. Using Swiss technology, the qualified nurses and doctors on the phone ask a series of questions to determine whether a patient’s symptoms are require a visit to the hospital or not.
“We advise patients according to their problems and show them which specialist they need to see if they need to. Most cases, about 50 per cent, are resolved over the phone and the rest we refer to the exact specialist,” says Dr Sameera Al Obaidli, the medical director at ADTC.
The centre has diagnosed more than 2,000 conditions over the phone since it began operations in October last year. It also has an app through which patients can send pictures that enable the doctors to diagnose skin conditions remotely or look at their medication and advise them on dosage.
Virtual and telemedicine clinics are likely to become the first point of contact for many patients, but healthcare providers “need to proactively keep consumers healthy rather than just treat symptoms”, says Ben Wilson, the senior director of healthcare strategy at Citrix, a US software company. “They will need to provide consumers with the tools and information to manage their own health at home, work or wherever they might be.”
Advances in mobile and wearable technology can enable consumers to track their health in a more accessible manner. Technologies such as sensors and biomarkers that track key indicators like heart rate, activity and calorie expenditure, are becoming more common.
The consumer healthcare market in the UAE is worth an estimated Dh1.8 billion this year, a growth of 9 per cent since last year, according to Euromonitor International. This includes over-the-counter medicines, supplements, and sports nutrition products.
“There have been significant innovations in technology that have proved very useful and with the advent of smartphones and applications, we are at the beginning of a revolution,” says Professor David Price, the founder and managing director of the Observational and Pragmatic Research Institute in Singapore.
This revolution is one where patients can monitor their health inside out and better understand how their daily habits and lifestyle impact their key health indicators.
“The future will be focused on putting the patient at the centre of their own disease management and using the technology to better manage themselves,” says Prof Price. “The challenge is making an accurate diagnosis and working out the correct therapy for the client and personalising medicine.”
While advances in AI continue, there is a way to go before it can match human medics. A recent study by Harvard University showed that doctors correctly diagnose illnesses twice as often as the 23 online symptom checker apps the university tested.
One factor holding AI back is the regulatory concerns regarding patient biodata. It is illegal for healthcare providers to share patient information and AI needs data to become more accurate.
And as for determining whether your genes make you more prone to various diseases, much of it comes down to your environment and lifestyle.
“Certain things can increase the chances, but nothing is for sure,” says Dr Al Obaidli. “It doesn’t mean that someone will get cancer if all the risk factors are yes, cancer can happen any time to anybody.”
But given the desire to live longer and healthier lives, consumers are likely to make use of technologies that will enable them to do so.
“In the not too distant future, most consumers will take a simple DNA test and the data will become part of their health record and will be used as one of many data sources to determine the best way to stay healthy or treat health conditions,” says Mr Wilson.
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Updated: November 20, 2016 04:00 AM