Precise health can be used to identify and treat at-risk populations

November 5, 2018

Earlier this year, Gary Folker battled neck cancer and won. The Executive VP of Orion Health Canada was found to be cancer-free and was given a clean bill of health from his oncologist.

However, on a subsequent trip to a doctor for a follow-up, Folker was himself taking a look at one of his CT scans when he spotted something unusual. He pointed out the peculiarity to the physician, who promptly exclaimed, “Holy Christmas, that’s an aneurysm.”

It was a 7.5 centimetre bulge in the abdominal aorta that was in serious danger of bursting. A few days later, Folker was on the table at hospital having the aneurysm repaired. He had a successful procedure, but it was of course a close call.

“Aneurysms are silent killers,” said Folker. “They’re entirely asymptomatic,” meaning there’s no obvious sign of them or when they might rupture.

After this harrowing experience, while chatting about it with colleagues, he learned that Orion Health had launched a ground-breaking project in New Zealand to spot aneurysms in the general public – enabling those in danger to obtain life- saving surgery.

Orion Health obtained a sample patient database, and using analytics, was able to determine which of them were at risk of an aneurysm. The project then provided CT scans to 632 of the patients. Of this cohort, an astonishing 36 were found to have aneurysms.

The point, commented Folker, is that with proactive screening and the use of analytics, at-risk patient populations could be identified and treated – before suffering death or a catastrophic incident.

“It’s precision health,” said Folker, noting that tying AI, analytics and databases together in this way, with the help of data scientists, is leading to breakthroughs in healthcare. And it’s not only aneurysms that could be identified, but a host of ailments – such as diabetes, asthma, and other diseases.

For its part, Orion Health has been developing expertise in this form of precision health, and will be rolling out additional projects, including a few in Canada. The impact could be enormous.

With precision health, you’re saving lives. You’re also catching diseases and conditions before they become even more serious and costly to the healthcare system. And finally, the data can be used to help governments plan the investments they will need to treat at-risk patient populations.

However, as Folker observes, “You don’t want to scan every patient for every condition. The cost would be too high.”

Instead, the idea is to pinpoint indicators of disease or risk in the data, and to then test those patients for specific ailments.

“Just imagine,” said Folker. “GPs could use a handheld ultrasound to check an at-risk patient for an aneurysm right in the doctor’s office. It’s very easy to do, and it’s just one of the areas that you can target.”

Still, there are roadblocks to implementing a comprehensive system of analyzing healthcare data in this way, and screening patients proactively.

There’s tons of patient data in hospitals, labs, pharmacies and communities, but it’s often unconnected and unshared. Next, there are privacy concerns that block the usage of the data, even if it were shared and available. That’s a legislative issue to be overcome.

And finally, there’s the issue of actually funding the studies, of getting data scientists to work on analyzing the information and identifying at-risk individuals.

On the bright side, some regions and provinces of Canada have “very rich databases”, said Folker, and are in a position to mine them for the benefit of patient care.

Indeed, the combination of excellent databases, funding and expertise – in the form of data scientists and effective algorithms – is allowing Orion Health to start demonstration projects in certain areas of Canada. “It’s an exciting area,” said Folker. “It can help not only individuals, but whole populations.”

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