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Big Data, Artificial Intelligence Drive Innovations in Health Care

Panel Examines Opportunities in Digital Health Industry

Digital Health Panel
Panelists included General Manager of IBM Watson Health Deborah DiSanzo, President and CEO of EmpiraMed Greg Erman and President and CEO of Tufts Medical Center Dr. Michael Wagner; right, Vice Provost of Research Julie Chen.

By Karen Angelo

Perhaps your healthcare record has moved from paper to electronic, or maybe you communicate with your doctor’s office via email or you wear a device that measures your activity level and reports it back to your doctor. 

These advances at the intersection of medicine and technology have reshaped the delivery of health care. But they are just the tip of the iceberg according to industry experts. As the amount of healthcare-related data grows–the average person is likely to generate more than 1 million gigabytes of health-related data in a lifetime -- the opportunities to develop new products and services that improve healthcare are exploding. 

To examine health-care industry trends and their potential impact, the university recently hosted the “Digital Healthcare Revolution” panel discussion together with the UMass Center for Digital Health, the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership and the Kennedy College of Sciences

Panelists included Deborah DiSanzo, general manager of IBM Watson Health; Greg Erman, president and CEO of startup EmpiraMed; and Michael Wagner, president and CEO of Tufts Medical Center. 

“As an academic institution, UMass Lowell needs to be aware of the opportunities in health care and apply our knowledge to improve society,” said Vice Provost of Research Julie Chen, who moderated the panel discussion. 

The audience of students, researchers, faculty and staff learned about challenges from the providers’ perspective, new market opportunities due to the explosive growth in big data and how new ideas for health care products or services are being brought to market. 

‘As an academic institution, UMass Lowell needs to be aware of the opportunities in health care and apply our knowledge to improve society.’ -Vice Provost of Research Julie Chen
“We spend an average of seven minutes with our primary care doctors, which puts tremendous pressure on providers to develop the best plan for an individual,” said DiSanzo, who manages more than 7,000 employees worldwide from IBM Watson headquarters in Cambridge. 

Watson, the IBM supercomputer, answers questions posed in natural language. 

“With Watson, there’s an opportunity to use artificial intelligence and signal processing to improve knowledge that increases the consistency of care,” DiSanzo said. 

Wagner urged researchers to present information in a useful way for caregivers. 

“We need to move away from sporadic methodical approaches and look at relationships and patterns of care. It would be very helpful if results were presented visually for caregivers,” he said. 

Erman, who has developed 250 academic medical research projects, sees technology as a way to make health care more accessible. 

“If knowledge can be presented and shared in a way that’s useful, rural doctors around the world could take control of health care,” Erman said. “We can also use technologies to track how patients respond to therapies so that we can improve guidance to make better decisions.” 

Panelists shared advice on what’s needed to position Massachusetts as a digital health leader. 

“To bring new ideas to market, you need to understand the voice of the customers. You need to know what the unmet needs are and interview people who would be interested in your solution,” Erman said. 

DiSanzo noted that 300 health-care startups are already using Watson, which is creating demand for highly skilled workers. 

“We need data scientists with expertise in artificial intelligence to train Watson to read and learn to make intelligent decisions,” said DiSanzo. “We can create a digital health ecosystem in Massachusetts, that is why IBM put Watson here, not on the West Coast.” 

Computer Science Ph.D. student Ning Zhang, an organizer of the event, said the discussion provided new insight into the challenges facing the growth of digital health. 

“It was interesting to hear that a huge amount of clinical data is created every day. But the biggest barrier is to access to this data and to gain insights from this data,” Zhang said. 

Building the Digital Hub in Massachusetts 

The digital health market represents a $32 billion market over the coming decade, according to Goldman Sachs. Massachusetts is well-positioned for success as host to world-class health care and academic institutions, a strong startup culture, significant venture capital investment and a dominant life sciences sector. 

New computing technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and data communication are among the major forces advancing the field of digital health, said Assoc. Prof. Yu Cao, who is co-director of the UMass Center for Digital Health that includes UMass Lowell, UMass Medical School and UMass Boston. 

“Our center is building a strong research team and collaborating with companies and providers to create solutions that improve health quality, reduce medical errors and lower health care costs,” he said.