Can technology help prevent preventable deaths?

18 January 2021

2,000,000 deaths due to COVID-19

The pandemic has affected every country in the world with equal force. A well-functioning epidemiological surveillance system is one of the key elements in controlling the spread of communicable diseases. It allows for accurately obtaining an overview of the situation and then planning activities depending on current needs.

By the end of 2020, in modern Singapore (population of 6.5 million), more than 58,000 cases of SARS-CoV-2 infections and 29 deaths were recorded. The rescue was not drugs or a vaccine (still not available at that time), but an effective national strategy to fight the pandemic, along with new technologies later so willingly copied by other countries. There, 92% of the population has downloaded the TraceTogether contact tracking app. In the early stages of the pandemic, the lack of reliable statistics led to chaotic and blind operations in many countries. Without a unified reporting system, Europe missed some key turning points by reacting too slowly to a rapidly changing situation, including the emergence of coronavirus mutation. If there had been epidemiological surveillance systems based on real-time data, rather than on information delivered with a delay of several days, the reaction could have been faster and more flexible. That is why we need an IT infrastructure and collaboration in sharing data.

800,000 suicides

This is one of the most embarrassing numbers for healthcare systems around the world. According to WHO data, 264 million people suffer from depression. These numbers are very imprecise because mental health problems remain a taboo subject in many countries. Therefore the prevalence is greatly underestimated. Indeed, depression is difficult to diagnose disease. The patients themselves often deny that they need help and are often convinced that the problem is not in them but somewhere outside.

Mental illness cannot be detected by taking blood tests or analysing data in an electronic medical record. However, its early signs can be recognized during a GP visit as it is often the cause of other ailments. So far, there are no procedures, meticulous collection of data on well-being, lifestyle, stress load, and environmental data that may be a factor triggering mental illnesses. Mental health monitoring, which does not violate human privacy and intimacy, is a necessity and a challenge. It can include artificial intelligence systems that analyse voice, sleep quality or activity on social media, virtual screening on large groups of the population, integrating medical data with social and environmental data. The data can suggest subtle traces of problems provided that they are well analysed.

Moreover, to the 800,000 people who commit suicide each year – mostly due to mental health problems – we can add 500,000 deaths due to drug abuse. 70% of cases are related to painkillers and highly addictive opioids. That is why it is essential to develop new pain treatment methods and anxiety therapies through virtual reality or bots - therapists, for example. Their effectiveness has been confirmed in many clinical trials.

9,600,000 deaths due to cancer

In this case, technology can be useful in two aspects: prevention and therapy management. There are many possibilities in digital prevention: from home medical tests to individualized health programs available on a cell phone. But also an electronic medical record integrated with the system so that the data could first be analysed by the AI system, and on this basis, the doctor could support the patient in taking care of his or her health. For greater effectiveness, each patient's record should contain genetic data that may indicate an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer. Family medical records should be linked with one another to monitor and control inherited diseases. Digital solutions can also support therapies, including motivation to maintain the health control recommended in a given condition, regular use of medications, and mental support. These types of integrated programs, also offered to family members, can fill the missing links in cancer patient care.

17,900,000 deaths due to heart diseases

Coronary heart disease and strokes are the leading killers today, regardless of the economic development and quality of the healthcare system. New treatment technologies and favourable lifestyle changes have improved patient survival statistics. Nevertheless, we are talking about treating an existing disease that usually takes a long time to develop. It is a hard nut to crack because it is not easy to quit smoking overnight, change diet or start doing sports. Each of us has our own habits, limitations resulting from our living environment, as well as a baggage of experiences and beliefs taken from childhood or formulated by the immediate environment. For patients diagnosed with cardiovascular disease such as hypertension, telemonitoring based on wearables technologies is the future. People from the high-risk group should get a personalized digital prevention program prescribed. We already know a lot about the risk factors: being overweight, excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, insufficient physical activity, hypertension or elevated blood cholesterol levels. A lot of data on this subject ends up on the electronic medical record and then disappears somewhere between the lines of new entries, ICD-9 diagnoses and medical notes. We already have appropriate data analysis systems, but we still lack a strategy for their use.

814,000 deaths due to dementia

Alzheimer's and degenerative diseases of the brain are the world's second leading cause of death in high-income countries. What's the reason? In countries with high gross income per capita, the health care system copes well with infectious diseases, the average age is higher, and hence the overall number of patients is higher too. Just as there are no effective Alzheimer's drugs, there is also a lack of digital therapies. However, solutions such as virtual reality and digital diaries can help preserve memories and sometimes bring back memories to a sick person, improving the quality of life.

Eurostat data shows that 1.5 million people aged 75 and under died in the European Union in 2016. One million or 66% is the number of premature deaths that can be avoided. To change this, digital therapies need to be used together with the classical medicine cabinet.