DIGITAL HEALTH BRIEFING: Google AI can predict heart attacks from eye scans -- Lyft, Hitch Health partner for medical transport -- Nokia executive sees no path for Digital Health

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GOOGLE’S AI HELPS TO PREDICT CARDIOVASCULAR CONDITIONS BY ANALYSING EYE SCANS: Google and Verily – Google-parent Alphabet’s life sciences unit – are exploring new ways that artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to identify patients’ risk of suffering from a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke, according to a newly published study by the two Alphabet subsidiaries. The report describes how Google’s AI analyses noninvasive retinal fundus scans – scans of the back of the eye – to deduce the individual’s age, sex, blood pressure, and whether they’re a smoker. That data can then be used to predict that individual’s risk of suffering a cardiovascular event with comparable accuracy to current leading methods.

Why is this important?

The technology could potentially make it faster, cheaper, and simpler for healthcare providers to accurately predict a patient’s cardiovascular risk, which could save millions of lives and billions of dollars. Google’s algorithm showed it could identify the likelihood that a patient would suffer from a cardiovascular event in the next five years with 70% accuracy. This was only slightly lower than the 72% accuracy seen in commonly-used, more invasive, methods, such as SCORE, which requires a blood test to be taken and analysed. With Google planning to further develop and test its algorithm on larger and more comprehensive datasets, it’s reasonable to assume that the accuracy of this test will improve over time. Eventually, the technology could help providers identify more individuals who are at risk of developing cardiovascular conditions – cardiovascular disease not only affects over 100 million people in the US, it is also the costliest disease in the nation, with associated costs reaching $US555 billion in 2016, according to American Heart Association.

How does this impact the healthcare industry?

Google’s study shows how AI-technology can be used to create new diagnostic tests to predict medical conditions by using data from existing tools. For example, Google’s technology can be used to show what parts of the retinal fundus image actually lead to the most successful predictions, essentially giving researchers new information into what causes cardiovascular disease. This information could lead to significant advances in how doctors determine who may be at risk of a cardiovascular condition and how to best treat them to lower their risk just by analysing their history. As more companies prove how AI can be used to transform how the healthcare industry diagnoses and treats major conditions the technology will only further move towards becoming a part of a new standard of care for patients.

HITCH HEALTH AND LYFT PARTNER TO HELP GET PATIENTS TO THEIR APPOINTMENTS: Hitch Health, the Minnesota-based healthcare technology company, announced the launch of its partnership with ridesharing company Lyft to give patients non-emergency medical transportation, according to HIT Consultant. Hitch Health’s proprietary technology securely connects to a healthcare provider’s electronic health record (EHR) to identify the patients who would be most likely to benefit from a ride to and from a clinic, hospital, or doctor’s office. These patients are then sent an SMS text with a free ride offer via Lyft for their next visit. If the patient accepts the offer, Hitch Health will send another notification the morning of their appointment. Patients aren’t required to have a smartphone, an app, or a credit card, which can be barriers in underserved populations. Partnerships between ridesharing services and healthcare systems are becoming increasingly popular, as healthcare systems realise the benefits of offering non-emergency medical transportation to patients to reduce the number of missed appointments. About 3.6 million patients miss medical appointments each year because of transportation barriers, according to the National Academy of Sciences. These missed appointments can lead to poor health outcomes, increased emergency department visits and hospitalizations, and lost revenue for health systems – as much as $US150 billion in the US every year, according to Health Management Technology.

NOKIA EXECUTIVE CONFIRMS COMPANYS DIGITAL HEALTH WOES: Nokia chief strategy officer Kathrin Buvac sees no path forward for its digital health business after the segment “struggled to scale and meet its growth expectations,” according to an internal memo sent by Buvac to Nokia employees that was seen by The Verge. The memo was sent the same day the company announced a strategic review of its digital health business alongside preparations to lay off as many as 425 employees in Finland. The email sheds further light on the dire state of Nokia’s Digital Health business – a part of Nokia Technologies – that includes its line of wearables and connected thermometers and scales, and its health app.

The memo doesn’t necessarily mean Nokia will remove itself from the digital health market. The company’s foray into healthcare wearables opened the door to multiple relationships with healthcare companies, and provided Nokia with a “new perspective” on the healthcare space, Buvac said. As we reported last week, if Nokia stays in health care, it’s likely that the company’s way forward will be as a business-to-business and licensing company, something it’s found massive success within the telecom and mobile tech market – the company reported around $US28 billion in revenue in 2017. This could include offering healthcare-focused IoT and wireless solutions for hospitals and healthcare systems.

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INFLUENZA OUTBREAK DRIVES UPTICK IN US TELEMEDICINE VISITS: Healthcare systems are showing an increasing reliance on telemedicine providers to alleviate emergency rooms during illness outbreaks, according to virtual care delivery service Teladoc. The company announced Tuesday that it has provided more than 300,000 virtual patient visits since mid-January, a record for the company. The spike in patient volume was likely due to a combination of an overburdened health care system further taxed by the start of the flu season, and shows how telehealth solutions can help address staff and bedding shortages in hospitals. Telemedicine services, such as Teladoc, can streamline the treatment process because it connects patients remotely to certified physicians around the US, via phone, video-conferencing, and online, rather than relying on local access to physicians. This allows the company to treat far more patients – the company says it often treats more than 1,000 patients suffering from the flu each day and reported that influenza cases represented nearly one in five visits in January, compared to the 1 in 15 in-person visits reported for the US by Modern Healthcare.

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