October 11, 2015

“Lights Out” Health Care

Over the past few weeks, I have been to a major data center, attended a medical school advisory board meeting, met with several providers of both wearable and non-wearable biometric data collection systems, and looked at the increasingly sophisticated array of biometric kits available at the major pharmacies. I have concluded that we have the potential to improve health, to improve the quality of health care, to reduce health care system costs, and to transform the role of nurses and doctors through technology.

Each of the experiences I have described above has shaped my thinking, but each has done so in a different way.

The data center visit

I visited a large data center, in which the operators are using state-of-the-art monitoring systems for electrical power, climate control, and the performance of its computer and server systems. A company on whose board I sit, Eaton Corporation, is a leader in providing comprehensive power management solutions for data centers. What is remarkable about the large data centers is the degree to which these centers no longer need human beings to monitor many system components. The central control hardware devices and software programs provide data on thousands of points within the system. There are less than 10 employees for a huge data center.

What insight does this have for health care? To the degree that we are designing a system that enables remote and comprehensive monitoring of the state of health of a patient population, we can do so with relatively few healthcare professionals. Although we talk about a serious labor shortage, the labor shortage assumes an indefinite continuation of the face-to-face diagnosis and treatment systems we now have, as opposed to the remote monitoring systems toward which we are heading.

The term the data center people when describing a center monitored predominantly by sophisticated hardware and software technology is a “lights out” system. We must evolve to a “lights out” healthcare system on the same model.

The medical school advisory board meeting

As we think about healthcare professionals being trained in modern medicine, it becomes clearer than ever that healthcare professionals not only need to learn traditional human biology and body chemistry, but to be steeped in the field of bioinformatics. Bioinformatics is a relatively young field of knowledge and skill in which diagnoses and treatments are developed through both onsite and remote data collection and the computer-generated analyses that use the data.

There will never be a complete loss of human judgment by trained health care professionals, but their efforts can be focused on those cases in which human judgment can make the biggest difference. Getting good data on biometric indicators, health and healthcare history, and the foods, beverages, prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and other items ingested by an individual is critical to enabling the human judgment factor to work best.

Medical schools are beginning to understand the importance of bioinformatics, and to incorporate course material on this field.

The visits with biometric device producers and health plan administrators

The Dossia Health Manager now is able to aggregate not only the comprehensive clinical history on an individual, but biometric and daily activity data that enables the healthcare professional to get a much more complete picture of the individual’s state of health.

Even better, there is an increasing effort to integrate biometric data tracking and management into health plan designs. Employers and health plans have been providing services and incentives to get individuals to participate in health risk assessments, but these have been one-time exercises, as opposed to a program of capturing and tracking health data all the time.

There was a 2010 Kaiser Permanente study which supported the view that someone who regularly tracks blood pressure is 50% or more likely to control blood pressure. This is consistent with a broad principle, often articulated about business objectives, that what gets measured gets managed. The ability to capture blood pressure data with wearable devices is better than ever, and should be stimulated with incentives and rewards.

Shopping at the local pharmacy

Perhaps the most interesting learning I have done over the past month has come from wandering through several pharmacies while I was shopping for a few items. Near the pharmacy counter at every counter is an increasing variety of home health test kits which are getting close to laboratory accuracy.

One which particularly caught my eye was a kit costing about $30, marketed by Bayer, which enables a user to draw a drop of blood and get a quick reading on his or her Hemoglobin A1c level. Hemoglobin A1c is a leading indicator of Type II diabetes. In the past, someone like me, who monitors this biometric indicator as closely as possible because of a family history of Type II diabetes, a genetic predisposition to the disease, and a slightly elevated level of blood sugar, would have had to get a physician to write an order for a laboratory test. I would have had to schedule an appointment to get blood drawn, and would have had to wait at least one day, and possibly longer, to get my A1C reading.

Today, I can buy my own kit, draw my own blood, and get a same-day reading of my A1C level. While I would not rely on a home test kit for a definitive diagnosis, I can track general trend information and can do so far more frequently than would be the case if I relied on a physician’s order and on having to schedule an appointment at a lab.

The next step in the evolution of these biometric devices is to make them able to communicate automatically with either a smart phone or a laptop or desktop computer, so that the data can be communicated directly back to a personal health record controlled by the patient. Once that happens, the productivity of healthcare professionals will increase dramatically.

Instead of having nurses reside at a physician’s office or visit each patient at home, the nurse can work from either a home-based desktop computer or a mobile laptop or I-Pad device to track the health status of a much larger patient population than ever before. Physicians would write orders to that nurse relative to what biometric indicators are most relevant for a particular patient.

Final comment

The biggest obstacle to adoption of this “lights out” healthcare system is the resistance of those who have built strong capability and income from face-to-face diagnosis and treatment systems. If I operate a large medical practice based on the assumption that I must see every patient I treat, it will be very difficult to put into place systems and processes that operate as if I am not there. The biggest challenge in diminishing this resistance is not technological or educational; it is the fear of losing income, jobs, or status.