By Christopher W. Hansen
Technology is changing every aspect of our lives, and in the field of medicine that is especially true in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cancer.
Technology allowed scientists to unravel the human genome and led to the creation of the entirely new science of genomics and personalized medicine. Now we’re able to fight some cancers by using technology to identify genetic mutations and create therapies to cause specific molecular alterations in tumors. We also use apps on smartphones and other personal technological devices connected to broadband networks to monitor our health. Technology enables patient-centered care.
As cancer care continues to evolve, so does medical technology and its use in every aspect of the care continuum.
With the development of Watson, IBM is once again applying technology in unprecedented ways. Watson is a groundbreaking example of how the synthesis of big data into new forms of intelligence can teach us more about diseases, treatments and patients themselves. Watson has the potential to revolutionize oncology research with its ability to match patients to appropriate clinical trials and monitor patients’ progress on new cancer drugs.
Personalized medicine is also changing the landscape of care for chronic diseases such as cancer. As individual genomics give rise to more precisely designed tests and treatments, data analytics has an increasingly important role to play. A new wave of technology applications for cancer care have the potential to enable oncologists to prescribe the right treatment the first time – one that will target and kill cancer cells with the least collateral damage to the patient – and one that can be replicated by different doctors in similar patients wherever they are. The promise is better quality care and lower cost. A cognitive technology platform like Watson can hold that kind of potential.
An estimated 1.6 million people in America will be diagnosed with cancer this year. That’s more than 4,000 every day. For them, technology holds the promise of providing better access to the best cancer care available and helping to improve the way health care is delivered.
Because of severe shortages of some specialty providers in rural areas, people with complex conditions such as cancer or hepatitis C often have to travel long distances or face long waits to receive treatment. Their problems are often compounded when they are low-income or uninsured. Patients who face these barriers often forgo treatment or wait until they have severe complications before seeking medical intervention. The result is a higher cost of treatment and lower chance of survival.
A unique model exists that has found a way to leverage technology to enhance the capacity of community health care providers to safely and effectively manage chronic, complex diseases such as cancer in rural and medically underserved communities. The model is called “Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes,” commonly called Project ECHO. It began at the University of New Mexico and is being replicated nationally and globally. Project ECHO uses network technology to train doctors and other health care workers in rural areas so they can manage symptoms for patients in their communities. The program currently is connected to 700 clinics in 12 states and four countries. Not only do programs like ECHO increase access to quality care, they improve the convenience of care, which is critically important for many cancer patients.
Technology can also help patients more effectively manage their own care with confidence. Initiatives like “Blue Button” have allowed millions of Americans to gain secure online access to their health records with the click of a button. Patients are able to manage information about their prescription drugs, tests, lab results, treatments, adverse reactions and upcoming appointments. They can save and access their information on computers or mobile phones. This capability is now available to beneficiaries of Medicare, the VA and Tri-Care. Additionally, Blue Button has pledges of support from numerous health plans across the United States.
As we think about technology trends and how to impact health and medicine, we’re entering an era of personalization. By combining our medical and technological capabilities, we will be able to empower the patient, provide better tools to doctors, enhance wellness and intervene at earlier stages of disease well before people even know that they may be getting sick.
I believe that cognitive technology like Watson could greatly enhance and accelerate these trends. Sometimes major technological advances are undervalued until they are available and used over time. Today, I’m not sure we can even imagine the ultimate value of Watson in our efforts to stop suffering and death caused by cancer.