Special: Going Digital for a Healthier Future

What IT Can Do for Preventive Health Care and Treatment

Digitization is already having an impact on many aspects of our lives. In the health care sector, technology innovations, notably platforms for connected analytics, are now helping improve our wellbeing. They have the potential to bring about major advances in health care through personalization, and by enabling better preventive medicine and more accurate diagnosis, prognoses, and treatment. This is not just good news for the prevention and treatment of disease. Better diagnoses and better treatment can reduce the cost of providing health care. 

A significant factor is our highly mobile global society. The more mobile we become, the easier it is for epidemics to rapidly become pandemics. Modern IT systems that track and analyze infectious diseases can help contain outbreaks. Noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and the increasing rates of cancer, remain a huge challenge. Connected analytics can help doctors identify the best course of treatment for individual patients. Proper preventive health care is without doubt as important as the right treatment. But how exactly can IT help us lead healthier lives?

What advances can digital healthcare bring? Here are some examples.

Stay in shape with a portable mini computer 

The Internet of Things is digitizing personal exercise and health care. More of us are downloading programs onto our smartphones and using wearable technology. For example, fitness trackers give the wearer a lot of information about their body and their habits: How far they walk in a week; how many calories they burned on their run today; their average pulse, and whether their heart rate is OK. Using the latest IT, we can monitor our health at any time. We can learn how fit we are, and set new training goals. Many of us like to upload our data to social networks to share it with friends, and, by competing with them, increase our motivation. The next step might be sharing this data with health care providers. In a survey conducted by PwC, 63% of respondents said they would be prepared to share their data with their family doctor and hospitals. Of those surveyed, 26% said they would even let their health insurer access the data. Looking at data from all patients allows health care professionals to spot trends and potential problems early, analyze correlations and causes, predict health trends, and identify effective treatments. Relevant data about patients can make diagnosis more accurate and faster, and allows us to analyze symptoms and diseases progression in real time. 

Sharing data to combat epidemics

The international community needs to find ways of sharing data with health service providers and agencies worldwide so that they can tackle outbreaks of disease earlier and more effectively. In our highly mobile world, diseases can spread faster and rapidly become pandemics, which are epidemics that occur worldwide. Failure to detect an outbreak is a major risk. For example, in summer 2015, an 82-year-old man in South Korea died of suspected pneumonia. However, an autopsy revealed that he had in fact died of Middle East respiratory syndrome, the MERS virus. From this one case, a further 180 people contracted MERS, of which 36 died.

In October 2014, SAP had joined forces with renowned partners from the science and business community, including Germany’s Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, Robert Koch Institute, Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, the Hasso Plattner Institute, and the Nigeria Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Program, plus others. They embarked on a joint project to improve the control and combatting of epidemics, called the Surveillance and Outbreak Response and Analysis System (SORMAS). The system, which runs on SAP HANA, detects epidemics early and offers effective treatment so that outbreaks can be contained quickly. Medical teams first record information about the people who are infected and about those they have come into contact with. They enter this data on a mobile device, such as an ordinary cell phone. Cloud technology transmits the data to a central SAP HANA platform where it is processed and analyzed. Trained staff receive reports straight away so that they can instigate disinfection and quarantine measures. "Doctors and nursing staff can record patients’ symptoms, make an initial diagnosis, and monitor the disease’s progresses at any time and wherever they are," says Irfan Khan, international technical lead at SAP (CTO Global Customer Operations). 

Personalized cancer treatment with Big Data 

Cancer is another major health problem in the 21st century and presents huge challenges to the health care sector. In healthy people, old cells die and new cells form to replace them. Cancer is when the body produces cells that are abnormal and multiply out of control. This is caused by a defect in the genetic code that is the result of mutation. The prospects of success for different forms of treatment often depend on the type of gene mutation in the tumor. To be effective, a cancer treatment must be based on the analysis of the patient’s genetic makeup, which is DNA sequencing. DNA sequencing began in 2000, and back then was an expensive and lengthy process. In 2014, SAP partner Molecular Health invented a system that uses SAP HANA software to speed up the analysis of genetic information. The system, called TreatmentMAP™, translates the language of our genes into information doctors can use to decide which therapy to apply. The process is as follows: A doctor at Molecular Health receives samples of healthy and cancerous tissue from the patient. The software analyzes the tissue’s genes, and the DNA sequences of the healthy and cancerous cells are compared. The system then compares the genetic material with data that Molecular Health has been collecting for more than 10 years. Their database contains over 23 million scientific publications, hundreds of cancer indicators, 37,000 medicines, and over 90,000 clinical trials. After a short while, potential treatments for this patient are identified. A specially-trained oncologist uses the software to analyze the results and produces a report for the patient’s doctor. The report identifies effective and ineffective treatment options for this particular patient’s cancer. It also lists the potential risks and side effects. The entire process, from submitting the tissue sample to receiving the report, takes about two weeks. This is a significant reduction in the time cancer diagnosis otherwise takes, and benefits patients.

When used properly, and when people’s privacy is protected, technology allows us to analyze and share anonymized data so that we can lead healthier lives, diagnose diseases more accurately, and provide more effective treatment.

"We still don’t know everything about the human body, or how our organs interact. But IT has brought much greater transparency to our field."
Martin Kopp, general manager of SAP’s Healthcare division