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How digital health is transforming patient journeys

The term ‘digital health’ encompasses all the ways in which we’re harnessing the power of connected technologies to support our health. Professor Thomas Hügle explains how innovations can transform a patient’s journey through the healthcare system.

Recent advances in technology have been nothing short of revolutionary for our health. We have apps and smart watches that help us lead a healthy lifestyle and manage symptoms for a plethora of diseases. But digital solutions go much further than devices that monitor our well-being. Telemedicine – whereby a patient can access a doctor remotely – has seen a huge uptake during the pandemic. Clinical trials have shown that digital therapeutics – apps that help us manage our health – can treat depression, fibromyalgia and other chronic disorders.

Technological innovation is set to transform patients’ experiences. Symptom finders will lead to earlier diagnoses and patients will be able to consult a specialist more quickly through online appointments. Electronic medical records or other cloud-based solutions will make it easier to exchange patient data between different medical stakeholders. Patients will be able to report outcomes of digital biomarkers (like pulse or blood pressure) that are measured through sensors or wearable devices. This up-to-date, real-world data will mean we’ll learn more about diseases – and therefore be better placed to treat them.

AI will also help to predict the course a disease will take. This will give healthcare professionals a much better idea of the state of their patients’ future health and will inform clinical decisions, such as choice of medication. But, as well as helping doctors, AI will also empower patients. Algorithms allow patients to identify the triggers that cause chronic diseases to flare up themselves. Based on such information, AI can suggest lifestyle changes or nutritional and physical interventions tailored to the patient.

These AI applications are already a reality in some fields, with the most advanced found in diabetes care. Here, a patient’s blood glucose level is constantly monitored by an implanted measuring device and, with the help of an algorithm, the best possible insulin dose is administered by an implanted micropump. This self-contained system automatically detects small errors and optimises itself continuously. I believe that such algorithms will soon be available for other chronic diseases.

In many cases, the best decisions are made when AI and humans work together.

So what obstacles lie ahead? One challenge will be to ensure digital health is accessible to all. If patients are expected to pay for such algorithms, apps or wearables, we run the risk of creating a health elite where only the wealthy can afford the best care. If innovations are proven to work, patients should be able to access them for free or through their health insurance. France and Germany have set a good example by reimbursing patients for digital apps and therapeutics. Let’s hope legislation elsewhere heads in the same direction. Another key concern is data protection and privacy, of course; we’ll need to ensure that people’s information is safe and that they feel comfortable using these services every step of the way. That said, I’m confident that this will be possible, just as it has been for other sectors that have embraced technological change.

Another challenge will be to convince healthcare professionals and patients alike to embrace AI. Some doctors are reluctant about this prospect, perhaps because of the fear that AI could outperform humans in some fields, but a closer look reveals that, in many cases, the best decisions are made when AI and humans work together.

With that in mind, we have to train doctors, nurses and future therapists in digital health and programming because data analysis is crucial and working with data and algorithms will become the new normal.

Through my work at Lausanne University Hospital, I encounter first-hand the issues that could be solved by technology and I see its potential to transform healthcare even further. It’s a no-brainer: digital health is here to stay and we should embrace the possibilities it offers.

Prof. Thomas Hügle
Head of Rheumatology at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV)
Prof. Thomas Hügle is Head of Rheumatology at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) and is on the panel of experts for Biopôle’s Vanguard Accelerator programme, which helps digital health start-ups to grow their business. He runs a research programme for digital rheumatology where he and his team develop machine learning algorithms for disease prediction, as well as digital therapeutics and biomarkers for rheumatic diseases.
Vanguard Accelerator programme
The Vanguard Accelerator programme is an excellent opportunity to open up possibilities for start-ups in the digital health sector. Having worked in the medical field with a strong focus on digital health, I help entrepreneurs to find solutions that are scalable and that respond to clinical needs.

I also learn a lot during the discussions, which include specialists from many different areas. What I enjoy the most are fruitful encounters with a group of people, where each one brings a valuable contribution to the table.

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