Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent
April, 28th 2010

Healthcare is a complex topic with many moving parts, including doctors, hospitals, clinics, the pharmaceutical industry, government policy, privacy, medical schools, etc. Now, take your thinking up one level—to health itself. The health of individuals is affected by myriad factors, ranging from globalization of agriculture and economic vitality on one end to advertising messages and opportunities for exercise on another. So, how can a society that’s determined to improve the health of its citizens get its arms around all of those factors and their interdependencies?

Some of our IBM colleagues at the Almaden research lab in San Jose are taking a step towards answering that question at a two-day conference starting today. The goal of the conference, Almaden Institute 2010, is to help achieve better health through modeling and simulation. They’ve invited experts from academia, government health agencies, health care providers, and policy think tanks. Among the speakers are John D. Sterman, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, and Margaret Brandeau, professor at Stanford. Sterman’s speech, A Banquet of Consequences: Management Flight Simulators for Climate Change Policy, will be streamed starting at 9 a.m. PDT, and Brandeau’s speech, Modeling and Simulation in Public Health, will be streamed starting at 11:30 a.m. PDT. You can tune in here.

Modeling and simulation aid our ability to understand the interrelationships of systems and how a change in one can affect others—which is an important building block in improving public health and health care.

Consider this disturbing situation: Some large American cities have so few supermarkets that they’re considered “food deserts.” There’s actually an abundance of food in these places, but it’s the wrong kind. It comes in the form of fast food in restaurants or processed food in small shops—not the abundant, affordable fresh fruits, vegetables, and other fresh provisions that people need to remain healthy. For instance, Detroit, a city with a population of nearly 1 million, has no major supermarkets. Meanwhile, it has more than 400 liquor stores.

This difficulty in getting fresh food is a major cause of America’s obesity problem–where roughly one-third of Americans are obese. Obesity, of course, is a contributing factor in a wide array of maladies, including heart disease and high blood pressure. But why can’t people get healthy food? There are many causes. Crime is a factor in the paucity of supermarkets in the inner cities. And poor public transportation systems make it difficult for city residents to travel to a fully-stocked store. Meanwhile, advertising drives people toward poor food choices. So you can begin to see how truly vast and complex is the health ecosystem. “It’s easy to tell people to eat less and exercise more, but the situation is complex. You have to take into consideration genetics, socio-economic factors, location, and social influences,” says Paul Maglio, manager of smarter planet service systems at IBM Research.

Knowledge about how these factors interrelate is crucial to policy makers and leaders in government, the health care industry, and other participants in the health ecosystem. This is where modeling and simulation come in. Today, decisions that affect health are typically made based on looking at a single system in isolation. Even when researchers gather data and build models for analyzing it, they look at systems as if they stand alone. Maglio, database management researcher Pat Selinger, and a handful of other IBM scientists have embarked on an effort to make it possible for stakeholders in a nation’s health to share data and create integrated models that can provide holistic views of how the world works. “Everything is connected to everything. If you change one piece, everything else needs to reconfigure. It’s like a spreadsheet where every value needs to recalculate every time something changes,” explains Selinger.

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