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How high-tech will personalise health

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The health sector is on the cusp of a step change that will see patients benefit from treatment that is more focused on the individual than ever before, writes DR WOLFGANG MERTZ, CTO EMEA for Healthcare, Life Sciences and HPC, Dell EMC Isilon.

Through the better use of data and advances in analytics, precision healthcare promises a more personalised approach that will significantly improve the outcome of even the most serious illnesses.

As well as improving patient care, this new level of personalisation also has the potential to meet the increasing cost challenges faced by the healthcare sector by ensuring resources are allocated in the best way.

It’s generating significant traction as a result, with Global Market Insights recently forecasting that the market size will reach $88 billion by 2023.

Not all patients are the same

The fundamental idea behind precision medicine is that one size doesn’t fit all. While some patients respond to a certain treatment, there will be others that don’t.

For example, for one specific type of cancer, just 20 percent of patients respond well to chemotherapy. This means that treating the other 80 percent in the same way is both time consuming and expensive, with little chance of a positive outcome.

As well as environmental and lifestyle factors, these variations in how patients respond to treatment are often down to genetics. While specific patient details and heath history can inform precision medicine, the ability to analyse individual genomes can take it to a new level.

The role of the genome

Analysis of a patient’s genome can identify biomarkers that provide a strong indication of how they will respond to a certain treatment. In short, this means patients can be offered treatment that is most likely to treat their illness successfully.

Genome sequencing reveals the unique code that defines the physical characteristics of a person, including the likelihood that they will develop certain illnesses.

Specialist companies provide genome sequencing but the fact that the human genome was first sequenced just ten years ago and contains more than three billion base pairs, puts the data challenge in perspective.

Many countries have national collections of genomics data, such as Genomics England, which is funded by the NHS. Using this data, patterns can emerge across populations that can be used to inform treatment.

However, there remain a number of challenges before precision medicine can become a practical reality for the average patient.

Getting the infrastructure right

Firstly, health organisations must gain an understanding of where different data is located and how it can be accessed in an appropriate way.

Patient data is often siloed in hospitals (in Electronic Medical Records or PACS, for example) while other useful genomics data could be spread across regions, countries and beyond. The first challenge is therefore to locate and access relevant data. This requires national and international coordination to establish channels and systems that healthcare organisations can use to access the data they need.

Of course, all of this data must then be consolidated in a way that gives it practical value. Data lake technology – for example, Dell EMC’s healthcare data lake – is particularly useful in this respect, as it brings together structured and unstructured data from a wide range of sources in a single location. Once in place, this data can be easily interrogated by analytics tools to generate useful insight.

There will also be challenges around the approach different regions take with their genomics data. Some countries may have a small number of healthcare regions in a simple structure, while others are more complex. Healthcare organisations, government and research institutions will need to work out the best way to work with the relevant stakeholders, including who will lead the data consolidation and how this can be done as efficiently as possible.

In this scenario, it’s likely that the volume of data that organisations have access to will grow over time, as new connections are made and further bodies of research are created. The size of the data lake is therefore likely to grow, so scale-out storage, such as that provided by Dell EMC Isilon, will be another important element of the technology infrastructure  needed to support  the development of precision medicine.

Making genomics data useable
The latest storage technology will clearly be crucial but there also needs to be a way for GPs and other clinicians to make use of the data when dealing with individual patient cases. The data needs to be presented in a way that can be understood by people who aren’t trained in data science.

The development of platform applications is critical if this progress in data analysis is to make a real impact. Specialist ISVs are already developing applications to deliver these kinds of insights but it will take time for them to be adopted widely.

Security is another key consideration when working with patient data. Strict access controls should therefore be applied and data anonymised where relevant.

As the exciting world of genomics is poised to revolutionise patient care, it’s important that organisations delivering healthcare prepare their technology infrastructure.

Data lakes, scale-out storage and platform applications will all be key technologies in making precision medicine a reality in the coming years. If healthcare organisations put these capabilities in place, they will be able to bring patient care to a whole new level.

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Gadget goes to Hollywood

Gadget visited the Netflix studios last week. In the first of a series, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK talks to CEO Reed Hastings.

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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is no stranger to Africa. He has travelled throughout South Africa, taught maths in Swaziland for two years with the Peace Corps, and visits close family in Maputo. As a result, he is keenly aware of the South African entertainment and connectivity landscape.

In an exclusive interview at the Netflix studios in Hollywood, Los Angeles, last week, he revealed that Netflix had no intentions of challenging MultiChoice’s dominance of live sports broadcasting on the continent.

“Other firms will do sport and news; we are trying to focus on movies and TV shows,” he said. “There are a lot of areas that are video that we are not doing: sports, news, video gaming, user-generated content. We don’t have live sport.

Reed Hastings at the Netflix studios in Hollywood last week. Pic: ADAM ROSE

“We’re not replacing MultiChoice at all. Their subscriber growth is steady in South Africa. They serve a need that’s independent of the Internet, via low-price satellite. There is no intention of capturing that audience. If they’re growing, it’s because they serve a need.”

While Reed ruled out any collaboration with MultiChoice on its satellite delivery platform, despite its collaboration with another pay-TV service, Sky TV in the United Kingdom, he did not close the door. He stressed that Netflix saw itself as an Internet-based service, and would pursue the opportunities offered by evolving broadband in Africa.

“If you look in other markets like the USA, how Comcast carries us on set-top boxes with their other services, it could happen with MultiChoice, the same as with all the pay-TV providers.

“We’re really focused on being a service over the Internet and not over satellite. Our service doesn’t work on satellite. Where we work with Sky is on Internet-connected devices. We’re happy to work on Internet-connected devices. We tend to work on smart TVs, but need broadband Internet for that.

“Broadband is getting faster in Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa – we can see the positive trendlines – so it’s more likely we will work with broadband Internet companies.”

Hastings is a firm believer in the idea that one content provider’s success does not depend on pushing another down.

“HBO has grown at the same time as we have, so can see our success doesn’t determine their success. What matters is amazing content with which the world falls in love.”

Click here to read about Netflix’s international expansion, and how the streaming service selects content for its platform.

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Take these 5 steps to digital

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By MARK WALKER, Associate Vice President for Sub-Saharan Africa at IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey.

Digital transformation isn’t a buzz word because it sounds nice and looks good on the business CV. It is fundamental to long-term business success. IDC anticipates that 75% of enterprises will be on the path to digital transformation by 2027. 

However, digital transformation is not a process that ticks a box and moves to the next item on the agenda – it is defined by the organisation’s shift towards a digitally empowered infrastructure and employee. It is an evolution across system, infrastructure, process, individual and leadership and should follow clear pathways to ensure sustainable success.

The nature of the enterprise has changed completely with the influence of digital, cloud and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and success is reliant on strategic change.

There is a lot more ownership and transparency throughout the organisation and there is a responsibility that comes with that – employees want access to information, there has to be speed in knowledge, transactions and engagement,” he adds. “To ensure that the organisation evolves alongside digital and demand, it has to follow five very clear pathways to long-term, achievable success.

The first of these is to evaluate where the enterprise sits right now in terms of its digital journey. This will differ by organisation size and industry, as well as its reliance on technology. A smaller organisation that only needs a basic accounting function or the internet for email will have far different considerations to a small organisation that requires high-end technology to manage hedge funds or drive cloud solutions. The same comparisons apply to the enterprise-level organisation. The mining sector will have a completely different sub-set of technology requirements and infrastructure limitations to the retail or finance sectors.

Ultimately, every organisation, regardless of size or industry, is reliant on technology to grow or deliver customer service, but their digital transformation requirements are different. To ensure that investment into artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, knowledge engines, automation and connectivity are accurately placed within the business and know exactly where the business is going.

The second step is to examine what the business wants to achieve. Again, the goals of the organisation over the long and short term will be entirely sector dependent, but it is essential that it examine what the competitive environment looks like and what influences customer expectations. This understanding will allow for the business to hone its digital requirements accordingly.

The third step is to match expectations to reality. You need to see how you can move your digital transformation strategy forward and what areas require prioritisation, what funding models will support your digital aspirations, and how this tie into what the market wants. Ultimately, every step of the process has to be prioritised to ensure it maps back to where you are and the strategic steps that will take you to where you want to go.

The fourth step is to look at the operational side of the process. This is as critical as any other aspect of the transformation strategy as it maps budget to skills to infrastructure in such a way as to ensure that any project delivers return on investment. Budget and funding are always top of mind when it comes to digital transformation – these are understandably key issues for the business. How will it benefit from the investment? How will it influence the customer experience? What impact will this have on the ongoing bottom line? These questions tie neatly into the fifth step in the process – the feedback loop.

This is often the forgotten step, but it is the most important. The feedback loop is critical to ensuring that the digital transformation process is achieving the right results, that the right metrics are in place, and that the needle is moving in the right direction. It is within this feedback loop that the organisation can consistently refine the process to ensure that it moves to each successive step with the right metrics in place.

There is also one final element that every organisation should have in place throughout its digital evolution. An element that many overlook – engagement. There must be a real desire to change, from the top of the organisation right down to the bottom, and an understanding of what it means to undertake this change and why it is essential. This is why this will be a key discussion at the 2019 IDC South Africa CIO Summit taking place in April this year. With this in place, the five steps to digital transformation will make sense and deliver the right results.

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