Macau Matters | How big data will transform medicine

Richard Whitfield

I always look forward to getting my weekly information “fix” from The Economist, and a few recent stories in have pointed out that data analysis, especially using Artificial Intelligence, along with extensive medical condition monitoring and much more personalized medical interventions will collectively revolutionize medicine. They also note that, globally, medicine is a USD7trn (trillion, as in thousand billion) industry and Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google and other major information technology companies are starting to invest very heavily in it.

Apple especially wants your smartphone to become the repository of your personal medical history and for a plethora of personal medical conditional monitoring devices to feed it data about your current health. Think of smartwatches monitoring your heart rate, blood sugar, etc. which your smartphone records and analyzes. At medical consultations you make all this data available and your doctor downloads the data about all your other “external” medical tests and diagnoses. At the same time your personal data is “anonymized” and analyzed by AI (artificial intelligence) software to detect patterns between people to create new diagnostic tools. Think of an AI that monitors micro hand tremors when you use your smartphone and combines it with other medical information about you to diagnose the onset of Parkinson’s Disease based on similarities with other people having similar symptoms.

Your smartphone also becomes your medical assistant reminding you to take your medications and monitoring their efficacy. And it can become the doorway for you to access medical information about diseases and drugs and their effects and side- effects, and for access to information and support groups for people with similar medical problems to yourself. Your smartphone may even be your medication – Apps that can teach addicts how to recognize and overcome drug cravings and playing computer games to stimulate brain activity to treat conditions such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

This revolution will rely on the widespread availability of large datasets of anonymized medical data combined with ready access to each individual’s medical history and condition monitoring data. I do not know about you, but I would be very happy to share my medical history if it can help others and my own medical care. However, I do want good security in place and good control on the release of my personal medical information. For example, I do not want health insurance companies rejecting me because they judge me to be a “high risk” – which is the purpose of insurance in the first place – people pooling together to share risks and costs.

I suffer from the typical rich country, middle class, middle age diseases – high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and worn out joints, so I am quite familiar with Macau’s public healthcare system. It is quite good in some ways, but it is woefully unprepared for this future.

For example, I have blood tests every six months but the only analysis I get is “everything is good” and to get a copy of the results I must fill in a form, pay MOP10 and then I get a printout of some of the results! The Health Bureau also issues a Patient’s Charter which outlines my medical rights and responsibilities, which is good, but the Charter is not met – I have never received any explanation of my diagnosis and treatment and the effects and side-effects of the drugs I take, as is my right under the Charter.

Sweden has a plan for giving every citizen electronic access to their medical records before 2020. I suspect that I will be long dead before Macau citizens have electronic access to their medical records, which is a real pity.

Categories Opinion