The Interactive Central and Eastern Europe Festival is one of the region’s largest conferences focusing on the Internet of Things. Bringing together 137 speakers from more than 17 countries to an audience of over 3,000, ICEEfest covers the full gamut of digital specialities, from content to e-commerce. This year it also tapped into healthcare
A few days ago, I was one of hundreds attending the launch of ICEEhealth – a day of presentations and discussions on digital health innovation. There were some brilliant speakers from the likes of Stanford University, Roche Diabetes Care and roadtohealth, but what impressed me even more was the presence of several Romanian health-tech startups, all with one main purpose in mind: to improve the nation’s faulty healthcare system. Although universally free, the Romanian system is severely underfunded by the government, and patients often resort to bribing medical staff in return for better treatment.
Here are some of the main points touched on by the ICEEhealth speakers:
ICEEhealth Event Director Lorena Macnaughtan kicked off the day with an overview of the digitisation of healthcare. The balance of power in medicine is shifting as the voice of the patient becomes louder through the help of social media and mobile apps, she explained. While, traditionally, we have seen innovation spring from either the clinical or the research end of the spectrum, patients have started taking matters into their own hands – particularly when they notice shortcomings in their treatment. Such was the case for Michael Seres and Salvatore Iaconesi, both of whom took to the ICEEhealth stage to talk about their experiences.
Michael Seres’ advocacy for patient-led health delivery has been heard all over the globe. Having spent a significant amount of time in hospital as a patient with Crohn’s disease and cancer, Michael has had the chance to observe faults in his treatment that might otherwise have gone unnoticed by medical staff. He is now the proud creator of the Ostom-i Alert sensor, an innovative device that alerts patients when their ostomy pouches need emptying. ‘As an innovator, you must understand the end user. Communicate and take note of their input from the beginning to achieve successful solutions,’ advised Michael, who last year became the first ePatient-in-Residence at Stanford Medicine X’s three-day conference on medicine and emerging technologies.
Salvatore Iaconesi’s experience, on the other hand, has had a more social impact. After being diagnosed with brain cancer, he was distraught to find that his doctors made no effort to ameliorate his treatment experience. ‘You go from being a human being to a set of medical data. Doctors start speaking a technical language that you are not even meant to understand.’ So Iaconesi requested his medical records, changed their format to make them accessible not just by specialists but by the general public, and invited the global online community to share their ‘cure’.
Seres and Iaconesi have both made a clear case for patients’ views to play a bigger part in the delivery of care. ‘The patient is a weird, administrative, bureaucratic entity, living in data, images, lab results, chemical exams,’ explains Iaconesi. But instead of seeing them as a lab rats, it’s high time the healthcare system recognised the value of patients’ input in the development of future health solutions.
‘A blood-glucose tracking app is not enough,’ said Karolina Korth of Roche Diabetes Care, talking of innovative diabetes treatments. Technology can improve treatment of chronic conditions not just through prevention but also through changing patients’ behaviours. ‘We have to start helping patients proactively manage their conditions by establishing a new habit in their attitude towards their conditions,’ she added. And already, diabetes treatments are moving towards a personalised approach.
Similarly, Quealth, a health improvement app that uses health risk assessments to calculate your chances of developing a chronic disease, aims to trigger behavioural change in its users. The app also develops a series of personalised coaching tips, an interactive dialogue, reminders and follow-ups to keep your journey to good health on track. ‘Consumer attitudes towards healthcare are fickle,’ explains Alistair Wickens, CEO of roadtohealth, the app’s developer. ‘We must understand the psychology of the consumer to help them make the right decision.’
‘What’s the difference between driving a broken lorry on a winding mountain road and managing a Romanian hospital? There is none. They’re both almost impossible to do,’ says journalist Vlad Mixich.
Romanian public hospitals are in a severe staff crisis, with only 2.5 doctors for every thousand people. Resident doctors earn around €200 per month, while specialists earn €500, so it is no surprise that the country is a facing mass-migration of its medical personnel. Add to this the alarming lack of modern medical equipment and we can all agree with Mixich’s claim that the quality of care in Romanian public hospitals needs significant improvement. But to fix the performance of health authorities, you must first measure their performance to establish what needs fixing. Mixich argues that public funds must be redirected towards improving patient outcomes, not least because, within the EU, Romanians are the patients least satisfied with the quality of their care. Despite this situation, the future looks bright, with a number of medtech and mHealth startups set to make changes that focus on patient needs. Here are a few names to watch out for:
Founded by a team of students from Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Mira Rehab is a startup that designs computer games aimed at improving patients’ experience of physiotherapy. Clinicians and physiotherapists can use the Mira system to transform physical therapy exercises – particularly those for the shoulders, hips, elbows and knees – into video games for their patients to play. The games are designed for any age and fitness level, and use Microsoft Kinect to track the patients’ movements and assess their ability to do the exercises. The games can also help motivate patients to exercise and enable therapists to create individual exercise plans that patients can do on their own at home.
Romania has an ageing population, with 15 per cent over the age of 65. Many of these older people live in remote areas and have little social interaction. So, if there is a health emergency, they don’t always have access to immediate help. Alert+ has designed a wearable device that monitors their movement and heart rate in real time, and alerts caregivers when their patients have fallen or are about to have a heart attack.
Another major concern about the country’s healthcare system is its serious lack of donated blood. ‘Over half of the amount of blood needed every day is missing from hospitals,’ explains journalist Claudiu Pândaru, founder of the Si EU Donez (I Donate Too) network, which aims to mobilise large numbers of people to donate blood wherever they are with the help of an app that locates their nearest donation centre.
The ICEEhealth day taught me that the Romanian healthcare system still has a long way to go to address patient needs and, especially, to improve the quality of care in publicly funded hospitals to an EU standard. Look out for my forthcoming feature on the state of medical innovation in Romania and how it can help repair the country’s broken healthcare system.
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