Managing life better online in sickness and health

New research spearheaded by IBM-Haifa promises to give Internet users access to personalized medical data, advice, latest research.

By
March 20, 2011 02:02
Yardena Peres, computer scientist

YARDENA PERES 311. (photo credit: IBM - Israel)

From the earliest days of the Internet, information about health and medicine has been among the most popular, even more than sex. But much of the online health data has been profit- oriented, superficial, exaggerated, misleading or downright false.

The utmost professionalism, objectivity and accuracy must be required of a health portal. And that is exactly what IBM has succeeded in doing. Although many information technology companies have made one-stop health information their aim, IBM has invested more brains, energy and imagination than any other.

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Launched about a century ago, IBM established its Haifa branch in Israel (www.research.ibm.com/haifa) as its first location outside the US, regarding our brainy and innovative scientists and engineers as a head above the rest. As for the patient portal, the company assigned numerous Haifaites at IBM’s project, and in recent years they teamed up with China and South Korea, where populations are huge and growing, and where technology is needed to improve healthcare.

IBM, WHICH employs 388,000 people around the world and is nicknamed “Big Blue” due to its corporate color, has scientists, engineers, consultants and sales professionals in over 170 countries. Its employees have garnered five Nobel Prizes. Haifa’s R&D Labs has been involved in this current huge health project for 15 years. It is proud that 30 percent of its lab employees are women, as are about one quarter of its managers.

From the moment of birth, one takes one’s place in the medical system – whether healthy or sick, one is part of it, says Yardena Peres, a senior manager in charge of healthcare and life sciences activities in IBM Research- Haifa. She gave an interview to The Jerusalem Post soon after returning from a week in Hannover for the prestigious CeBit trade fair, where she presented the IBM patient empowerment system and earned much acclaim.

After IBM’s Israeli experts began to develop the portal, it was improved on at Gacheon University’s Gil Hospital (which has a million inpatient and outpatient visits a year) in South Korea. Now, researchers from three corners of Asia – the IBM Ubiquitous Computing Laboratory in Korea, the Haifa lab and IBM Research in China – have come together for the collaboration. The other countries’ main aims are to improve health services, raise efficiency and cut costs.

PERES, WHO came on aliya in 1982 on her own, met her husband while he was backpacking in South America. Today, they live in Haifa, the parents of three girls aged 22, 19 and 11. A bachelor’s and master’s graduate of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Peres studied computer science (her husband is a Technion-trained industrial engineer). “I looked for work after graduating,” said Peres, “and this is my first job.” She began on the OS2 operating system, which seems incredibly primitive in today’s world, and then moved into healthcare. “I love all types of gadgets,” says Peres, but she really enjoys managing healthcare applications that are a boon for assisted living and consumer empowerment. “It’s not just for the elderly,” she insists. “It is for the health of people of all ages, but obviously of most interest to older people. Now that my parents are 88 and 78, and living still in Argentina, obviously, I think about how to help them with IBM.”

Peres notes that the patient load is very high in the hospital near Seoul. “There is no shortage of physicians; there are just a lot of of patients, and in fact it is considered a very good hospital. There are an average of only 10 minutes for each doctor to spend on a patient consultation. “Thus technology is needed to help the patient, who is the missing link.”

In 2009, IBM in Haifa started to talk to the Koreans about research collaboration that would continue for some five years. The Koreans are enthralled with technology, from cellular phones to medical devices, and have a lot of respect for Israel and its scientific achievements.

In conversations with Korean doctors, the IBM computer scientists decided that Asian patients want to become more involved in their health. “We are the main stakeholders of our health,” said Peres. “It is not just a visit to the doctor, but also prevention of disease, promotion of good health and connection to the whole social environment. A comprehensive portal was just what was needed.”

ATTITUDES ABOUT illness vary greatly. “Some people prefer just to see a doctor and be quiet. They don’t want anything to leak out. They don’t want even their closest family members to know. But others say they are ill and want to learn from people like them. One can even share photos. And it’s not only the patients themselves but caregivers who want to know the best way to cope with ageing parents.”

IBM’s comprehensive Health Portal is a Web-based application with a login. “It can manage all appointments, acute and chronic conditions, remind you what medications to take and when, list contraindications for certain drugs (whether they are allergies, illnesses or other medications you are taking). Peres notes that over-the-counter medications must also be listed, as should natural and complementary treatments such as homeopathy, herbs and recommended foods. “These things are very common in South Korea.”

Thus the portal becomes like an encyclopedic system. So many pieces of paper are tucked into medication packages that nobody reads – including the physician. The portal provides real-time alerts and warnings about side effects. It is personalized, based on the patient’s actual condition, and not mention about an extremely rare complication that almost never occurs but is written only to protect the drug company. The portal doesn’t replace a scheduleharried doctor, but gives him or her additional tools.

Americans, for example, regard privacy as the top issue.

They don’t easily give consent to their doctor, even a family member and health maintenance organization – and certainly not to a government agency.

Although China is, of course, much larger than both Israel and South Korea, the mega-nation is providing some of the service behind the portals. “The government there hasn’t said yet whether China would be willing to invest in the product. Korea is more homogeneous culturally and in language than Israel – with its immigrants and communities,” Peres says.

The portal could go as far as to record personal genomes and keep tabs on experimental research that has immediate applications. Patients could conceivably do a search for people around the same age, with the same illness and medications they are taking, and even contact them, if they are not worried about forgoing their privacy to discuss things.

Peres notes that the portal can make data available to whomever the patient authorizes. Health data can be accessed, if the patient wishes, only if it’s relevant to his general practitioner, to a specialist at a clinic or to a hospital professor. If a patient wants to hide the fact that he is impotent or has a mental illness, he can (although being honest about serious medical conditions is highly recommended). “We are working on making the portal as secure as possible.”

Israel is very advanced in online medical information and digitized medical records – especially within a medical institution such as Clalit Health Services, its community clinics as well as its medical centers. There is more difficulty getting the Health Ministry to agree on compatible systems that can talk to each other.

When asked how such a portal, which would have to be translated into each language, adapted to each culture and suited to each national psyche, could be widely used, Peres says research is being conducted to make it successful. Portals could be free to the individual but paid for by one’s health organization, whether for-profit or nonprofit.

In another five years, Peres predicts, “there will be much more patient empowerment. There are many reliable free websites such as the US National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization the US Food and Drug Administration and others. The whole approach to managing health will be different. But there are many others that will not be easily accessible.

The time will be perfectly ripe for the use of smart services, finding the latest research on medical problems and getting other services and information that will be unavailable on other health portals. Ours,” she predicted, “will bring everything together in the most substantive and authoritative way.”

How such a comprehensive portal will be used in each country is not yet clear, but it’s already certain that getting treated for illness will be improved, and for the rest of us, staying healthy is about to get easier.


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