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The Healthcare AI Future, From Google’s DeepMind

Posted on February 22, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

While much of its promise is still emerging, it’s hard to argue that AI has arrived in the health IT world. As I’ve written in a previous article, AI can already be used to mine EMR data in a sophisticated way, at least if you understand its limitations. It also seems poised to help providers predict the incidence and progress of diseases like congestive heart failure. And of course, there are scores of companies working on other AI-based healthcare projects. It’s all heady stuff.

Given AI’s potential, I was excited – though not surprised – to see that world-spanning Google has a dog in this fight. Google, which acquired British AI firm DeepMind Technologies a few years ago, is working on its own AI-based healthcare solutions. And while there’s no assurance that DeepMind knows things that its competitors don’t, its status as part of the world’s biggest data collector certainly comes with some advantages.

According to the New Scientist, DeepMind has begun working with the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, which oversees three hospitals. DeepMind has announced a five-year agreement with the trust, in which it will give it access to patient data. The Google-owned tech firm is using that data to develop and roll out its healthcare app, which is called Streams.

Streams is designed to help providers kick out alerts about a patient’s condition to the cellphone used by the doctor or nurse working with them, in the form of a news notification. At the outset, Streams will be used to find patients at risk of kidney problems, but over the term of the five-year agreement, the developers are likely to add other functions to the app, such as patient care coordination and detection of blood poisoning.

Streams will deliver its news to iPhones via push notifications, reminders or alerts. At present, given its focus on acute kidney injury, it will focus on processing information from key metrics like blood tests, patient observations and histories, then shoot a notice about any anomalies it finds to a clinician.

This is all part of an ongoing success story for DeepMind, which made quite a splash in 2016. For example, last year its AlphaGo program actually beat the world champion at Go, a 2,500-year-old strategy game invented in China which is still played today. DeepMind also achieved what it terms “the world’s most life-like speech synthesis” by creating raw waveforms. And that’s just a couple of examples of its prowess.

Oh, and did I mention – in an achievement that puts it in the “super-smart kid you love to hate” category – that DeepMind has seen three papers appear in prestigious journal Nature in less than two years? It’s nothing you wouldn’t expect from the brilliant minds at Google, which can afford the world’s biggest talents. But it’s still a bit intimidating.

In any event, if you haven’t heard of the company yet (and I admit I hadn’t) I’m confident you will soon. While the DeepMind team isn’t the only group of geniuses working on AI in healthcare, it can’t help but benefit immensely from being part of Google, which has not only unimaginable data sources but world-beating computing power at hand. If it can be done, they’re going to do it.

Too Many Healthcare Apps

Posted on May 4, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

As we all know, if we want something, there’s probably an app for that. From head to toe, from bank to restaurant to club, in most places in the world, there’s probably an app to meet your needs.

Apple is rightly lauded for its contribution in this area. While it didn’t invent the smart phone as such — early devices mashing together PDAs and connected computing preceded the march of i-Everything by some time — but obviously, it popularized this technology and made it usable to virtually everyone, and for that it deserves the kudos it has gotten.

But as we work to build mobile healthcare models, I’d argue, the notion of there being an app for each need is falling flat. Healthcare organizations are creating, and clinicians prescribing, targeted apps for every healthcare niche, but consumers aren’t showing a lot of interest in them.

Healthcare consumers have shown interest in a subsection of health app categories. According to a study completed last year, almost two-thirds of Americans would use a mobile app to manage health issues. The study, the Makovsky/Kelton “Pulse of Online Health” survey, found that their top interests included tracking diet/nutrition (47%), medication reminders (46%), tracking symptoms (45%) and tracking physical activity (44%).

But other research suggests that consumers aren’t that enthused about other categories of healthcare apps. For example, a recent study by HealthMine concluded that while 59% of the 500 respondents it surveyed had chronic conditions, only 7% used digital disease management tools.

I’ve made the following argument before, but I think it’s worth making again. From what I’ve observed, in talking to both providers and patients, the notion of developing a multitude of apps covering specialized needs is a failed strategy, reflecting the interests of the healthcare industry far more than patients. And as a result, patients are staying away in droves.

From what I’ve observed, it appears that healthcare organizations are developing specialized apps because a) that strategy mirrors the way they are organized internally or b) they’re trying to achieve specific outcomes (such as a given average blood sugar level among diabetics). So they build apps that reflect how they collect and manage data points within their business.

The problem is, consumers don’t care what a facility or clinician’s goals are, unless those goals overlap with their own. They certainly don’t want to open a new app every time they take on a new health concern. And that sucks the benefit right out of app-creation efforts by healthcare providers. After all, aren’t people with multiple conditions the expensive patients we’d most like to target?

What’s more, apps designed to capture data aren’t terribly motivating. Clinicians may live or die on the numbers, but unless those numbers come with a realistic path to action, they will soon be ignored, and the app discarded. Consider the humble bathroom scale. For most people, that one data point isn’t particularly helpful, as it says nothing about where to go from there. So people generally give up when they’re neither motivated nor taught by the apps they download.

To be successful with mobile healthcare, providers and clinicians will need to back the development of apps which guide and sustain users, rather than turn them into data entry clerks.  It’s not clear what should replace the current generation, but we need to turn to a more patient-centric model. Otherwise, all our efforts will be wasted.