If I asked you to suggest some ways to make the world a healthier place, no doubt you’d have plenty of ideas to put out there. Ideas such as developing more and better drugs, building more hospitals, and vaccinating more people would all go a long way towards improving our health.
And you’d be right of course, but with some of the advances made in computer science over the last few years, there might just be another way.
The answer might just lie in data. Lots and lots of data.
With the technical expertise we have available today, and the software we now possess that is capable of analyzing the data we capture and making sense of it, there’s a very real chance that this could have a transformative effect on healthcare.
Getting to the heart of the matter
One person who subscribes to this theory is Dr. Leslie Saxon, the founder of the USC Center for Body Computing. Dr. Saxon believes that big data could well be the greatest weapon we’ve ever had in our efforts to combat heart disease, and to that end, she’s set off on a mission to record every heartbeat in the world.
That might sound rather absurd, but Dr. Saxon is deadly serious, and she’s already set up a website that intends to do just that. Dr. Saxon says that the idea for Everyheartbeat came about following a study she completed along with AliveCor, an iPhone ECG device that allows users to monitor their own heart beats and try to detect any anomalies that could suggest a problem.
Everyheartbeat will allow users to keep track of their heart rate data using any kind of heath rate monitor – be it a specialized device, an iPhone app, or anything else people have access to. The idea is that Everyheartbeat will become a kind of heart rate data-sharing community, allowing doctors and other experts to keep track of global patterns and perhaps warn individual people of potential heart problems.
Atrial fibrillation, for example, whilst not life–threatening, is thought to be responsible for about 20% of all strokes in humans. The condition rarely produces any visible symptoms and so often remains undetected, but if a patient was hooked up to Everyheartbeat the system could provide them with a warning before it’s too late.
Here, Dr. Saxon gives a great presentation outlining her hopes for Everyheartbeat at TEDMED 2012:
Chronic diseases might not cause the same level of terror as a heart attack, but they can be almost as debilitating in many cases. Asthma, for example, tends to follow the sufferer throughout the course of their life, bringing with it respiratory problems like coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and so on, which in turn limits their daily activities and severely diminishes their quality of life.
One of the biggest causes of asthma is thought to be air pollution, with urban centers that have poorer air quality often having many more cases of the disease than those without these problems. As such, there are many advocates proposing that we collect more data so that we can learn about the disease, and perhaps, come up with more efficient cures.
Chief among these advocates is Asthmapolis, a company that develops special sensors that can be attached to asthma inhalers – these can then track data and give us precise answers as to when and where patients suffered an asthma attack, and when and where they are taking their medication. The sensors rely on a Bluetooth connection to the asthmatic’s smartphone, which in turn relays that data back to Asthmapolis. Patients are also encouraged to supplement the sensor recordings where possible, providing further feedback on triggers and symptoms they experienced.
The aim of the system is not to cure asthma, but simply to help asthmatics improve the level of control they have over their condition, by understanding when to take their medication and avoiding anything that can trigger an asthma attack.
To date, the company has recorded some impressive results in its clinical trials, with more than 70% of test subjects reporting that they had been able to improve their control over their condition thanks to the insights Asthmapolis provided.
I’ll leave you with this short video that gives us an idea of just what Asthmapolis might be capable of achieving: