The introduction of new applications of digital technology such as the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain promises to be the spark that triggers the mainstream adoption and propagation of precision medicine.
The field of healthcare and medicine has been among the major beneficiaries of the technological revolution that is defining the present era. The use of technology to fight disease and help improve public health has spawned numerous remarkable applications such as the use of deep learning for drug discovery and the application of AI for the timely detection of cancer. The next major leap resulting from the intersection of technology and healthcare is not going to be a new application but the revamping of a concept that has existed for a while now — personalized or precision medicine.
Precision medicine is the idea of delivering healthcare and medication by varying the approach on a case-by-case basis. This is in contrast to the existing paradigm of healthcare delivery where blanket solutions are applied to illnesses, without much differentiation. While this approach has been effective to a certain extent, with the emergence of newer forms of ailments and health issues, traditional methods of patient care are falling short in terms of effectiveness. That’s because the differences in the genetic make-up and the health history of different patients impact the efficacy of treatments — surgical, medical, or otherwise. The solutions that may be highly effective for someone may be partially or even totally ineffective for someone else. That’s because, despite our general, broad similarities as people belonging to the same species, genetic peculiarities and health history can dictate a lot in terms of how someone’s body reacts to different diseases and different medicines. Thus, as the next milestone in the field of medicine, we must aim to create healthcare systems that treat patients and not just problems. And that is the essence of precision medicine — focusing on individuals, not just illnesses.
Precision medicine is a modern adaptation of the term personalized medicine, which conveyed a similar idea — tailoring treatments keeping in mind their biological responses to different diseases and drugs. Precision medicine implies analyzing a patients medicine, their environment, genetic peculiarities to predict the action of drugs and disease-causing agents on them. To predict such reactions, it is necessary to have all the data regarding a person’s genetics, their habits, health and medical history, and other pertinent information. And that’s where modern technology comes into the picture. Technologies like big data analytics, bioinformatics, and artificial intelligence are already influencing the global healthcare landscape. These technologies can extend their influence over the field further by enabling precision medicine. Since precision medicine is all about data gathering, analysis, and problem-solving based on the analysis, technologies like analytics can be a perfect fit for it. The combination of modern technologies can enable the global healthcare industry to bring precision medicine into mainstream practice. These technologies can enable medical practitioners to gather information on individual patients, right from their daily habits to complex, microscopic information such as their genetic code. They can also be used to analyze the information collected and predict outcomes and potential remedies. Thus, the role of technology in precision medicine is undeniable.
Precision medicine requires a detailed analysis of information performed both on a macro-level, such as identifying health trends across populations; while also needing detailed analyses on an individual, genetic level. The technologies listed below can help in doing that, and with further research and development, can help in doing more.
The Internet of Things (IoT), although a fairly new technology, is already proving its worth through its numerous real-life applications. These applications are demonstrating the difference made by the sensors and actuators that constitute the endpoints of the network. These endpoints, sensors to gather data and actuators to act in the data, are leading to the creation of many an autonomous network that can perform fairly complex functions without human intervention. This also includes monitoring patients’ health indicators and initiating remedial action when things go out of control. This helps in not only saving a lot of effort on the part of physicians but more importantly helps in attending to and saving lives (in emergency and intensive care units).
However, the real value offered by IoT does not lie in the technology and its autonomy alone. The impact that can be brought about by the proper use of the wealth of data gathered by the myriad IoT sensors can be much more significant. The IoT sensors can gather huge volumes and a great variety of data pertaining to patients in a highly accurate, detailed manner. This can enable medical practitioners with an unprecedented level of insight into the health of patients. IoT can be used to gather data directly from diagnostic devices like those used to measure blood glucose, heart rate, and blood pressure and compile this information in a centralized repository. The compiled data can be used as a detailed Electronic Health Record (EHR) of sorts. The information can be used to get a clear picture of an individual’s health situation. The data can be easily shared with any physician who is dealing with the concerned patient.
But the large volume of data gathered requires highly intelligent processing capabilities to analyze and predict outcomes. That’s where artificial intelligence comes in.
Artificial intelligence systems are getting increasingly capable by the day. This is happening at such a blinding rate that the fact that an AI capable of building other AI exists is no longer a surprise. Then, it is only natural to expect AI-powered systems to be able to analyze the swathes of healthcare data and derive insightful inferences. These systems can easily analyze, in a comprehensive manner a patients habits and healthcare habits to evaluate the likelihood of getting specific ailments. Add to that the fact that AI-driven bioinformatics can analyze genetic information to predict how individuals’ physical systems will respond to different drugs and treatments, and you’ll understand the indispensability of AI in precision medicine.
AI can analyze a patient’s medical history, their health habits (mainly gathered by IoT devices), and their genetic characteristics to predict whether a treatment will be effective on them or not.
The AI-based system can also suggest highly tailored plans to individual patients that can be implemented by the physicians. Although the final call in such situations will still lay at the hands of human doctors, AI will prove to be an invaluable advisor in high-risk cases.
When we talk about gathering personal data, there is always a mention of privacy, and fairly so. The ability to gather health data brings with it the responsibility to store and handle that data in a secure manner. And one of the potential ways of securing private data is by using cryptography, such as that used in blockchain. Discussions about the use of blockchain-based EHR are already taking place both in the tech and the medical communities.
Blockchain can be used to store and secure highly sensitive patient-information in an anonymized manner. This can ensure that only the necessary information gets shared with pertinent people without the fear of the information falling into the wrong hands. Although using blockchain to secure any kind of non-cryptocurrency information hasn’t started yet, the use of blockchain to secure patient data to help precision medicine is a matter of when, not if.
Precision medicine is definitely poised to be a revolutionary leap in the field of medicine. And technologies like AI, IoT, and blockchain will add impetus to bring the concept into full-fledged fruition. However, it is also important to not get caught up in the exuberance evoked the potential of the technology and take steady, certain steps, following a realistic roadmap. For this, the leaders in the fields of medicine and technology must come together and foster collaboration between their sides to ensure success.
Naveen is the Founder and CEO of Allerin, a software solutions provider that delivers innovative and agile solutions that enable to automate, inspire and impress. He is a seasoned professional with more than 20 years of experience, with extensive experience in customizing open source products for cost optimizations of large scale IT deployment. He is currently working on Internet of Things solutions with Big Data Analytics. Naveen completed his programming qualifications in various Indian institutes.