'Data is good for your health'
Health is going digital, says Kai Rahnenführer, Managing Director at umlaut. Technology is creating new opportunities for diagnosis and treatment – and allowing people to take more responsibility for their own health.
The digitalisation of health has arrived in our everyday lives – for example, via the fitness tracker that people wear around their wrists. What potential do you see above and beyond "gadgets"?
This is a megatrend that is only just getting started. The availability of health data – above all from data series – makes a lot of things possible. For example, it can help us to diagnose heart arrhythmia, which requires measurements to be taken over quite a long period of time. Or gradual processes, such as the onset of dementia. Fitness trackers and smart watches are only the start. Highly sensitive sensor technology is already being incorporated into many areas of our everyday lives, for example in smart homes and in our cars. Why not make use of this for our health?
Digitalisation is just starting to pick up speed and there is huge potential in the area of healthcare to increase the well-being and safety of patients and to promote prevention and early detection to a greater extent.
So in the future, will my car tell me whether I am ill?
I think the first step will be that your car says: 'Perhaps you should go to the doctor's'. And the relevant data will be delivered to your doctor when you go to see them. For example, the continuous measurement of your heartbeat over a long period of time, which is recorded by sensors in the steering wheel. Having access to this data would enable a faster and more specific diagnosis to be made. The doctor can then use the time that has been saved to talk to the patient and give appropriate advice.
Time spent in the car can in future be put to better use with the car becoming a kind of interactive virtual waiting room.
Why is it that the digitalisation of the healthcare system is picking up speed at this particular time?
Our healthcare systems have been under a lot of pressure in the last few decades. In many countries, this has become particularly obvious during the Covid-19 pandemic. Health insurance companies and healthcare institutions therefore need to become more efficient and this is an area where wide-ranging digitalisation can help. There are also incentives in place – for example, in Germany, through funding from the federal government within the framework of the Hospital Future Act.
A further point to mention is the fact that people are starting to take more responsibility for their own health. In the USA, this goes without saying as the healthcare system there is organised in a more commercial way. But in Europe too, this is something that is playing an increasingly important role – for example, with an app that reminds us to exercise, to eat healthily and to drink plenty of fluids thereby preventing us from getting ill.
What concrete areas of application are you expecting to see in the near future?
One project, for example, is working on the recognition of strokes by means of a system of cameras in the car. When someone has had a stroke, the first half an hour is crucial if the patient is to make a good recovery. In this case, a system could detect the stroke, inform a doctor and, for example, switch over to semi-autonomous mode in order to safely reach an exit. When it comes to dementia, the use of automotive software could help with a diagnosis – for example, by assessing whether a person's orientation and reaction times have changed when using the various functions on the menu.
The biggest development, however, is in the improved evaluation and interlinking of health data – in Germany, electronic medical records are a first step in this direction. There are many conceivable benefits that could result from this – from better diagnoses and prognoses of illnesses and the course they will take, through to personalised medicine.
In such a scenario, who takes responsibility for ensuring that this sensitive data is dealt with correctly?
Of course, there need to be clear boundaries – for example, in order to establish which information will be passed on to doctors, health insurance companies or employers. This is then a matter of creating a concept with regard to rights. In my opinion, there are in essence three aspects that need to be addressed here: medical feasibility, ethical responsibility and economic reality – what can the individual or the healthcare system afford? A balance needs to be struck between these three factors.
You are yourself involved in digitalisation projects in the healthcare system – what has your experience been?
We have just initiated a collaboration with Flying Health, who bring with them a large network in the healthcare system and an incubator for start-ups. In this environment, we can offer targeted support by maintaining a good overview of complex processes and by providing stimuli with our technical and digital expertise. This might, for example, be improvements in sensor technology or IT security or the preparation of data analyses.
We have been able to gain concrete experience with the municipal emergency services, for example, with our unique service, the "Telenotarzt" (remote emergency doctor). As the Telenotarzt attends the emergency in virtual form, he/she is able to provide simultaneous support to rescue teams in different regions, handling up to three emergency scenarios occurring at different times, thereby helping to save lives.
The provision of telemedical care to patients in an emergency whilst at the same time giving support to the rescue teams at the scene of the emergency has already been carried out in more than 25,000 emergency response scenarios by the regular emergency services in Germany.
From our development work and from the Telenotarzt which is currently being used in actual operations, the need arose for a further project: Vetora, a real-time management system for the exchange of data from the emergency services (pre-clinical area) and the hospitals. Here the focus is on the real-time exchange of information on the flows of patients from the emergency services into the hospitals, as well as notification (or feedback) from the hospitals with regard to their available capacity for providing treatment. In addition to this, data on logistics (arrival time) and patient data (condition, level of seriousness, vital data) are shared with the hospitals via a kind of Arrivals board.
This results in the relevant data being made available more quickly, the strengthening of the supply chain and an increase in efficiency.