Musings from Interface Summit 2019 in Vancouver

Darren Stevens October 4, 2019

I have seen the future of healthcare and it is good. This week I had the pleasure of attending Interface Summit, billed as the top international digital health conference in Canada.

Digital medicine was not a term I was previously familiar with but it is an incredibly intriguing line of thinking. As opposed to prescribing pharmaceutical treatments, digital medicine strives to treat various types of disorders through the application of virtual, electronic and other forms of digital stimuli that can affect how the brain reacts to conditions such as stress, pain, fear, cognitive disorders such as stroke, dementia and Alzheimer’s, as well as habitual disorders and the like. Benefits are obvious; if such therapy can continue to demonstrate the effectiveness purported by these presenters, there is a distinct lack of side-effects, and the opportunity to avoid addictions and treatment abuses; the electronic remedy can “turn itself off” for example after a prescribed period of time, something quite impossible for a comparable pharmaceutical remedy.

I was amazed to see the advancements and the results presented in these areas. In the case of Interface Summit, these took the form of some very interesting future-facing solutions that are aiming to transform health care.

The theme of the conference was humanizing health care. It may seem counter-intuitive that technology can help to humanize health care, but what I saw were demonstrations of virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) that introduce a human component to treatments that were not previously possible.

The Future of Health Care is Virtual

It’s fascinating to see the concerns and the studies carried out by clinicians exploring new uses for technology. One example presented by the Centre for Digital Business in Australia called SimCoach used a virtual avatar, programmed with AI based on machine learning of personality traits generally held by war veterans, to provide a sympathetic ear the veteran suffering from PTSD. Also noted by Dr Brennan Spiegel of Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre and Dr. Adam Gazzaley of UCSF was the use of gaming and VR to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), combining multiple sensory inputs including sight, sound, touch and even smell, all of which combine to allow the patient to revisit and come to terms with the traumatic event responsible for their condition. They have witnessed high rates of successful treatment and low side effects compared to alternative therapies. The success rate of these kinds of treatments is incredible when compared to the existing model of strictly using pharmaceuticals.

It was fascinating for me to learn, for example, that simply having a child put on a VR headset to watch a vignette in an immersive virtual environment can reduce their pain (or their perception of it) when they are getting a needle. Or how the same is true of burn victims who are going through the otherwise excruciating process of having their bandages changed. It was quite incredible to learn how VR has the capacity to fool the brain into believing that an alternate reality, and the alternate personality depicted in the virtual world, are real. Dr. Spiegels recollected how the seemingly out-of-body experiences he encountered in a VR world where his perspective left the avatar and floated above it in the room left him profoundly changed and even reassured in his thoughts of future end-of-life events.

Another example presented by Marie Johnson with the Centre for Digital Business was an avatar called Nadia, an AI with a face and a pleasant voice on a screen, interacting with an elderly patient who was seeking advice about their treatments. Where a physician may not have time to address the spectrum of available treatment options in the span of an 8-minute appointment, an AI can offer more detail. For example, if a patient has a question about the efficacy of their existing prescription, the AI can ask them to hold up the bottle, so it can confirm the prescriptions and doses. We are a long way from leaving the prescribing of medications in the hands of AI, but we are already living in a world where AI can become a trusted advisor on matters related to diet and movement. To say nothing of the fact that they can possess infinite patience and empathy to a patient who needs little else.

An Open Data Future for Health

Given my line of work, I was left to wonder where the access to data plays into all of this. How do these creators and new treatment methods gain access to the historical health data of patients?

The key to opening up this new world of treatment options comes down to the ownership of that data. It’s only when a patient has access and control over their health data that they can begin to explore these new options. Today, patients that are most effectively finding treatment are carrying with them binders of information about their own care experiences and past treatment history; they would be better served by having access to their own digital patient records directly.

I was also reminded that our work to simplify the administrative processes currently required by medical professionals is itself helping to humanize health care. The current frustrations and complications with access to data are already frustrating experiences for those caregivers, whereas providing better systems that allow them to focus on their primary goals of providing care are in fact helping to “humanize health care.”

An open-data future where individuals are in charge of their own data has to be reached to help realize a lot of these visions. The first step is for the institutions and health authorities to explore their options for making that data accessible. 

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