Using technology to save the healthcare system

The nation’s health­care system is facing a finan­cial crisis. It’s not big news. We’ve all known it for years. The planet (and the economy) is strug­gling to accom­mo­date the largest pop­u­la­tion it’s ever had in a time when people are living longer than ever.

Everyone agrees that some­thing needs to change, but how it will change no one knows,” says asso­ciate pro­fessor Stephen Intille, who has joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences. Most health care pro­fes­sionals agree that pre­ven­tive med­i­cine will be a large part of the solu­tion, but devel­oping the busi­ness models to make it happen will be more complicated.

Intille rep­re­sents a growing group of researchers merging the com­puter and health sci­ences hoping to make pre­ven­tive med­i­cine easier and more viable as a health­care approach. Tra­di­tion­ally so-​​called “health infor­matics” tools have been “physi­cian facing.” They allow physi­cians to acquire, store, retrieve, and use patient infor­ma­tion via a broad range of tech­nology appli­ca­tions. In it’s cur­rent incar­na­tion, health infor­matics make things sim­pler for doc­tors when sick patients come to their offices.

While this works great for a “sick-​​care system,” Intille points out, it doesn’t do much in a “well-​​care system.” As such we need to rethink the field entirely. Intille and his col­leagues in the new Per­sonal Health Infor­matics (PHI) pro­gram are devel­oping tools that patients can use in their home and daily life to pro­mote healthy living.

We’re not talking about the mag­nets that yell at you every time you open the refrig­er­ator door. PHI devices are either entirely pas­sive, col­lecting data about your move­ments and habits without your paying atten­tion, or use pos­i­tive feed­back to rein­force good behaviors.

PHI tools can also reduce the cost of health­care by low­ering the over­head required to carry out research into var­ious sick patient groups as we attempt to design better treat­ments. For example, assis­tant pro­fessor Matthew Goodwin develops tools to help treat and diag­nose autistic patients in a more effi­cient and eco­nom­ical way.

Asso­ciate pro­fessor Tim­othy Bick­more develops vir­tual coaches to inter­vene across the spec­trum of health care — from pre­ven­tive med­i­cine, to out­pa­tient care, to in-​​hospital care, to the tran­si­tion home. “Heath behavior is respon­sible for a very sig­nif­i­cant chunk of the health care burden in the US,” he says. This means that both taking care of our­selves before we get sick and then doing the things we need to do when we are sick are both extremely important.

And both can be addressed through PHI devices. Northeastern’s new PhD pro­gram attracts stu­dents from the health care field who are inter­ested in using tech­nology to deliver better care, as well as tech­nology spe­cial­ists inter­ested in health and wellness.“There are 30 plus mas­ters and doc­toral level pro­grams in health infor­matics in the US,” says Goodwin. “All of them are within man­aged care or elec­tronic med­ical records, devel­oping tools to assist physi­cians. What dis­tin­guishes this pro­gram is that it’s about cre­ating tech­nology for the person who is get­ting ill or is ill.”

…Or pre­venting the well from get­ting ill in the first place.

Photo by Jonathan Williams, MIT Media Lab