Simple piece of technology saving lives
Radiology has always been a highly skilled area of medicine; these doctors spend thousands of hours reading scans to identify health issues that no one else can see. However, they now have a new competitor: artificial intelligence.
Enlitic, run by Australian data scientist Jeremy Howard, has created AI that can diagnose lung cancer more accurately than board-certified radiologists. The best of the best are no longer just that.
This is only one example of the way technology is disrupting healthcare. Rapid technological advances in medicine recently led public intellectual Aubrey De Grey to state that the first person to live to 1000 years has already been born.
Elon Musk launched another company, Neuralink, aiming to create "computer-brain interfaces", using technology to enhance brain function. The implications of such technology would be staggering for neurological diseases, whilst upgrading healthy human brains would allow us to live longer, smarter, healthier lives.
These technologies will change the Australian healthcare system beyond recognition. Seeing a doctor in 50 years won’t be the same as seeing a doctor now: perhaps you’ll see a robot, a cyber human, or some combination of the two.
However, it’s not all sci-fi. Simple digital technologies are transforming the way healthcare is delivered in low- and middle-income countries. The result? A profound and lasting impact on health outcomes for billions of the world’s poorest people.
Let’s look at two of these technologies: mobile phones and the internet. These are a long way from the glitz of computer-brain interfaces or cyber-human doctors that Australians may see in the future. However, they continue to deliver improved health outcomes to the people who need it most.
In 2015, there were more than 7 billion mobile telephone subscriptions worldwide - and most of these were in poor countries. A mobile phone is a point of connection and communication for the most remote of communities; mobile coverage now frequently extends further than electricity, clean water, and even the most basic of face-to-face health services.
During the 2014 Ebola crisis, text messages were used in Sierra Leone to spread warnings about regional outbreaks and offer information about prevention methods and symptom recognition. This simple use of text messages saved lives.
Australians are fortunate to receive a barrage of public health education. We all know that smoking is bad, breast milk is good, and vaccinations don’t cause autism. In low- and middle-income countries, such education is often non-existent. Mobile phones offer a unique opportunity to spread basic public health information (for example, the benefits of breast milk and vaccinations) to areas that can’t be accessed by traditional health services. This has the potential to drastically reduce infant mortality and improve life expectancy.
Despite ongoing difficulties with the crisis-ridden NBN, most Australians take internet coverage for granted. However, in low- and middle-income countries, the internet is connecting more people than ever before to the greatest source of free education the world has ever seen.
Mark Zuckerberg and other tech philanthropists are aiming to cover the world in wi-fi over the next decade. This is exciting; the internet allows health organisations within low- and middle-income countries to store and share information over the cloud, rather than relying on strained national infrastructure.
Research shows that cloud-based, electronic health information saves lives, reduces health spending and improves system efficiency. Information can be standardised across and between countries, allowing patients to access and control their personal health data. At the same time, data allows clinicians to collaborate in ways that health systems of the past did not - allowing them to achieve better outcomes for their patients.
Despite the explosion we’ve seen in mobile and internet coverage, 400 million people remain without access to essential health services. And almost half of the world’s population lack a basic social safety net.
Technology provides an opportunity to bridge this gap between rich and poor - bringing people closer together, and transforming their health in the process. But leadership is required to make this vision a reality.
With health ministers and global health leaders meeting for the World Health Assembly in Geneva next week, digital technologies will be high on the agenda. The World Health Organisation is (somewhat infamously) known for talk rather than action. However, a decisive plan for the use of digital technologies is exactly what is now required.
We are on the precipice of a digital health revolution. The World Health Organisation must show leadership and generate action if we are to capture its true benefits. The health of some of the world’s most vulnerable people is dependent on it.
Patrick Walker and Daniel D’Hotman are final year medical students at Monash University and will present a policy on digital health at the World Health Assembly, on behalf of the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations.