What is the role of data and technology in reimagining healthcare?

Examples from Scotland, Finland, Sweden and Brazil were showcased at a recent event in Helsinki.
By Leontina Postelnicu
03:43 AM
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Microsoft, Helsinki

Credit: Microsoft

Editor's note: This story was reported in Helsinki, Finland on a trip paid for by Microsoft, which covered airfare and lodging for reporters. Healthcare IT News made no promises to Microsoft about the content or quantity of coverage. Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

There is no doubt that healthcare systems around the world are undergoing a period of transformation, according to HIMSS chief clinical officer Dr Charles Alessi. Rising expectations of patients, as consumers, shifts in health trends, ageing, and workforce shortages are only a few of the key factors behind the urgent need for change.

“But the question is not if healthcare is changing, it’s at what pace healthcare is changing,” Dr Alessi said at a recent event organised by Microsoft, taking place ahead of the June HIMSS & Health 2.0 European conference in Helsinki, Finland.

The Nordic country boasts some of the hottest health tech initiatives and startups at the moment, and what makes it unique in being able to reap the benefits of digitisation is its data, explained Juha Tuominen, chief executive of HUS (Helsinki University Hospital), the second largest employer in Finland, including 17 hospitals in the capital and the Espoo and Vantaa cities.

“The data pool that we have is enormous,” Tuominen told journalists at the Microsoft press briefing. “Even though the Finnish population is very small, less than six million, two million people live here in our area. If you think that we already have lab data from 50 years, from those two million people, it means that the amount produced, the data pool is really big. We started with medical records in 1991, and it took ten years approximately to really cover the whole hospital, (…) so we have history, a lot of history there,” the CEO added.

But even in Finland,  the challenges are still there.

“The basic customer path and journey must be largely digitalised, and this is not there yet,” Tuominen said. Although patients can book appointments or fill questionnaires before and after their operations online, for example, these are not presented as “one service”.

“It’s not a smooth, seamless chain,” the chief executive said. “For a customer, it’s like a candy shop. You can pick different candies, but it’s not a full menu that you would eat. My first vision is that the whole chain will and must be seamless.”

Using data to provide treatment earlier

One example of innovation empowering citizens to lead healthier lives and take control of their care in Finland is the Health Villages initiative, launched through the two-year Virtual Hospital 2.0 project that ended in 2018. The Health Villages platform consists of three online portals: one for all citizens, one offering services to patient groups for different specialties, and one including tools for healthcare professionals.

Virpi Rauta, nephrologist at HUS and project manager for the national Kidney Hub for Health Villages, said the platform now reaches around half a million visitors per month. Around 1,760 professionals were involved in its development during the project period, and 14,000 people access it on average every day.

Other initiatives showcased throughout the day at the briefing included the work done at the Karolinska University Hospital, where a team has been working with Microsoft and other industry partners on a project started in 2018 to use an AI robot, VR and gamification to reduce the anxiety of children receiving cancer treatment and their families and loved ones.

Over in Scotland, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has been using wearable devices and Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform COPD - an umbrella term for a group of lung conditions causing breathing difficulties - in their homes in a trial expected to reduce the number of hospital admissions and generate cost savings.

“It’s about delivering treatment earlier by using data,” said Chris Carlin, consultant respiratory physician at the Scottish health board. “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.”

Meanwhile, Microsoft is also working with the Novartis Foundation and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil to develop a machine learning algorithm for early detection of leprosy. Most recent figures from the World Health Organisation indicate that more than 200,000 people were diagnosed with the disease globally in 2017.

But as stakeholders around the world continue to look to the adoption of digital technologies, Nicola Bedlington, secretary general at the European Patients’ Forum, emphasised that the patient’s voice must be a crucial part in the design, development and deployment of new tools, while, ultimately, the innovation needed in healthcare will be built on trust, seen as a “gatekeeper”, argued Elena Bonfiglioli, Microsoft healthcare lead for the EMEA region.