USC Body Computing Conference 6.0: Big Ideas for Personalized Health

Posted in Medical Computing by Chris Wiltz on November 7, 2012

The University of Southern California (USC) Center for Body Computing held its annual conference in October, and the word is out: The next step for healthcare is personalized and connected.

The University of Southern California (USC) Center for Body Computing held its annual conference in October, and the word is out: The next step for healthcare is personalized and connected.

Leslie Saxon speaks at this year's Body Computing Conference

The conference, now in its sixth year, brings together speakers from all over the medical industry, and many from outside, to discuss innovation in wireless healthcare. And the message is clear: The future of healthcare is in placing patients’ health in their own hands and better informing doctors through mobile, Internet-enabled devices; Big Data; innovative technologies; and even video games.

“There’s a big opportunity in the middle for public health,” said panelist Eva Ho, vice president of marketing and operations at Factual, a company that works to make patient data available via application programming interfaces. Right now, a good deal of healthcare focuses on the very sick, and there’s a ton of technology helping elite athletes achieve optimum performance. But what about the rest of us—the weekend warriors, those dealing with chronic conditions, and the everyday people who just want to live healthier lives?

In her opening remarks, Leslie Saxon,  MD, who organizes the conference and acts as executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing, stressed several principles on which the future of healthcare should be based: data liquidity, making patient data more transparent, personalized medicine, wireless technology, close partnerships with academics and industry to foster innovation and growth, and creating a culture of responsibility for patients and their own health. Thomas Jackiewicz, senior vice president and CEO of USC Health, affirmed this sentiment saying, “We have to become experts in managing data.”

Big Data and the so-called “quantified self” were heavily buzzed-about topics. In a panel discussion, Eric Horvitz, of Microsoft Research, outlined the potential for a machine active learning system that uses data culled from a variety of sources to facilitate patient care. “We can learn to make devices more sensitive and active in the data they’re seeking,” he said.

Search logs from Google, Twitter feeds, and even GPS information can all be used in a form of predictive modeling to monitor and even prevent patient disease. “People with symptoms are running Google and Bing searches,” Horvitz said. “Smartphones can be directed to look for diseases and conditions based on [search] data.”

On a personal scale, such technology can be used in predicting patient illness. On a larger scale, search data like this could be tagged with GPS information to provide tracking and reporting data on the spread and occurrence of diseases. Imagine your phone predicting an onset of a disease or serious condition and alerting you and your doctor,  and later even predicting a return to the hospital based on your habits.

The challenge is amassing a quantity of data to make such a thing possible. “Data itself is a challenge,” said Chris Wasden, managing partner at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Currently, there are only about 200,000 patients being remotely monitored. The challenge is in getting the data across a large, diverse group.”

But even with the availability of all this data and its corresponding technology, there is still another significant hurdle to overcome: the patient. While wireless health purports many innovative and cost-saving solutions for patients and clinicians, there’s also a question of motivation to be addressed. How can we incentivize and encourage patients to track their health metrics over the long term? Telling a patient that it’s important is one thing, but it’s quite another to create a habit out of it, or to get the patient excited about the prospect of sharing such data with healthcare providers and practitioners.

For Sonny Vu, founder of Misfit Wearables, the solution is to be as unobtrusive as possible. Vu and his team are looking for a different kind of sensor, one that is wearable, comfortable, and “doesn’t make me look like Iron Man,” he said. Having previously developed a now-available glucose meter that plugs into the iPhone, Vu believes the next step in computing technology is wearable. Misfit Wearables, which is expected to launch a Kickstarter campaign as soon as this month for its first line of products, is seeking to create wearable technologies and sensors for medical applications and beyond.
“I think a great wearable product is something that a lot of people would wear all the time for a long time,” Vu said. For him it’s not about competing with other sensor products. Misfit is focused heavily on the wearability aspect. “We focus on some of the key challenges in making wearables, like long battery life and low cost,” he said. “We’re competing against a $6.99 t-shirt at Walmart.” Imagine a t-shirt or other article of clothing that is stylish, comfortable, and capable of transmitting vital data about the wearer. It’s perhaps a tall order for Vu and his company, but one they are confident in approaching.
Other companies are working on more immediate products and solutions—ones that could even work for young patients. Avery Dennison, manufacturer of the Metria wearable body sensor, has partnered with Vancouver, BC–based Ayogo Games to offer unique user experiences to encourage and reward healthy behaviors in patients. Staffers from both companies were on hand to demo a game, “I [heart] Jellyfish,” which uses sensor technology to reward patients for real-world exercise with in-game awards.

A screenshot from the I [heart] Jellyfish game

Using the game, a clinician can set an exercise program for patient. The patient, wearing the Metria sensor, then performs the exercises and is in turn rewarded with currency in the game that allows for longer play. The only way to advance in the game is to get up and move around in the real world. In fact, other companies, such as London-based Six to Start, are taking this idea of “gamification” seriously as a means of encouraging patient activity. The company’s mobile game “Zombies, Run,” which uses a zombie narrative to get players to physically run, is already a hit, with more 150,000 active users.

There are currently about 40,000 medical apps available. Add to that another estimated 150,000 consumer health apps and an estimated $1 billion in investment over the next year, and it’s clear that the digital health space is a frontier as large as it is exciting. While it may be a while before the annual doctor visit becomes a thing of the past, it’s clear that a growing number of patients want access to their health data and are willing to accept accountability for their own health. Though at the rate things are progressing, it may not be a question of when this accessibility will be granted, but whether consumers will notice it at all.

Chris Wiltz is the assistant editor at MD+DI


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