Health Tech News This Week – September 4, 2021

What happened in health care technology this week – and why it’s important.

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Digital front door chatbot improves the patient experience at Aspire Indiana Health

Bill Siwicki reported in HealthCareIT News on Aspire Indiana Health’s chatbot implementation. The health system had high call volumes, and the staff was spending a considerable amount of time consistently answering the same questions. The team turned to Botco.ai, a digital front door chatbot technology vendor. The vendor’s chatbot solution enables meaningful conversations with every patient that comes to the health system’s website while decreasing the amount of time the scheduling and admissions team has to spend on the phone. Two critical components of the chat capabilities for current Aspire Indiana Health patients include the ability to schedule and modify appointments and to access the patient portal.

Why it’s important – This is an excellent example of how having a focused strategy on what you want to accomplish with implementing a chatbot solution delivers measurable returns. Once the chatbot was implemented on the Aspire Indiana Health website, the health system found the admissions and scheduling teams were having more informed, productive phone conversations due to the in-depth answers the chat was able to provide beforehand. Ava, their chatbot solution, handled more than 2,000 unique conversations and more than 6,000 incoming questions from potential patients and current patients alike, all with a greater than 97% confidence level.


“Smart” shirt keeps tabs on the heart

Rice University posted a press release on their research in developing smart clothing by embedding flexible carbon nanotube fibers woven into clothing to gather accurate EKG and heart rate. The fibers are just as conductive as metal wires but washable, comfortable, and far less likely to break when a body is in motion, according to the researchers. Here’s a short video highlighting their research:

Overall, the shirt they enhanced was better at gathering data than a standard chest-strap monitor taking live measurements during experiments. When matched with commercial medical electrode monitors, the carbon nanotube shirt gave slightly better EKGs.

Why it’s important – The research demonstrated that the clothing was comfortable to wear, required minimal action on the user’s part, and facilitated comprehensive data collection for patients requiring continuous monitoring.


Google confirms it’s pulling the plug on Streams, its UK clinician support app

Another Google health care project is discontinued, as Natasha Lomas reports in Tech Crunch. Following a recent reconfiguration of Google’s health efforts — reported earlier by Business Insider — the tech giant confirmed to TechCrunch that it is decommissioning its clinician support app, Streams.

The app, which Google Health PR bills as a “mobile medical device,” was developed back in 2015 by DeepMind, an AI division of Google — and has been used by the U.K.’s National Health Service in the years since, with several NHS Trusts inking deals with DeepMind Health to roll out Streams to their clinicians.

Why it’s important – Understanding exactly what you’re getting when developing these partnerships is critical. Just because the vendor says their product involves AI doesn’t mean that’s necessarily the case, as the NHS discovered. Despite being developed by Google’s AI division — and despite DeepMind founder Mustafa Suleyman saying the goal for the project was to find ways to integrate AI into Streams so the app could generate predictive healthcare alerts — the Streams app doesn’t involve any artificial intelligence. An algorithm in Streams alerts doctors to the risk of a patient developing acute kidney injury but relies on an existing AKI (acute kidney injury) algorithm developed by the NHS. So Streams essentially digitized and mobilized current practice.


Luminate aims to make hair loss from chemotherapy a thing of the past

In another Tech Crunch article, Devin Coldewey reports on Luminate Medical’s efforts to address one of the critical side effects from chemotherapy – namely hair loss. When a patient is undergoing chemotherapy, the cancer-inhibiting drugs course through their entire body — anywhere the blood goes. This has various side effects, like weakness and nausea, and on a longer time scale, hair loss occurs as the substances affect the follicles. Luminate’s solution, developed in partnership with the National University of Ireland Galway, is to prevent the blood from reaching those cells in the first place.

The device that affects this is a sort of mechanized compression garment for the head. The patient wears the cap during and after the whole chemo session. By restricting blood flow to the skin of the scalp only, it allows the drugs to flow unimpeded to wherever the tumor or cancer site is while saving the hair follicles from damage.

Why it’s important – While still in early development, tests have been done on animals, which saw strong hair retention of around 80 percent with no adverse effects — and while complete human trials are something that will need some time and approval to set up, initial tests of the headset’s blood flow-blocking effects on healthy patients showed that it works exactly as expected on people as well. While hair loss is considered a medical condition and wigs are generally reimbursed, it will take time and lots of evidence to get Luminate’s device approved for those processes. But the team is confident that at around $1,500, the device is within the means of many as long as other costs are being picked up by insurance.


Baby detector software embedded in digital camera rivals ECG

University of South Australia researchers have designed a computer vision system that can automatically detect a tiny baby’s face in a hospital bed and remotely monitor its vital signs from a digital camera with the same accuracy as an electrocardiogram machine. This is the first time that researchers have developed software to reliably detect a premature baby’s face and skin when covered in tubes, clothing, and undergoing phototherapy.

Engineering researchers and a neonatal critical care specialist from UniSA remotely monitored heart and respiratory rates of seven infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide, using a digital camera. Vital sign readings matched those of an electrocardiogram (ECG) and in some cases appeared to outperform the conventional electrodes, endorsing the value of non-contact monitoring of pre-term babies in intensive care.

Why it’s important – Worldwide, more than 10 percent of babies are born prematurely, and due to their vulnerability, their vital signs need to be monitored continuously. Babies in neonatal intensive care can be difficult for computers to recognize because their faces and bodies are obscured by tubes and other medical equipment. Many premature babies are being treated with phototherapy for jaundice, so they are under bright blue lights, making it challenging for computer vision systems.


NHSX publishes anticipated ‘What Good Looks Like’ guidance

Andrea Downey of Digital Health reports on the release of a set of standards by the NHS to help NHS organizations understand how they should be driving digital transformation, and what success looks like. The much anticipated ‘What Good Looks Like’ framework sets out a “clear north star” for digital success in NHS systems and organizations in England. The guidance aims to build on the strides seen in digital and data during the Covid-19 pandemic by providing local NHS leaders with digital success measures they should strive to meet.

Why it’s important – The framework sets out seven success measures, including whether the digital transformation is well led; ensures smart foundations; safe practice; supports people; empowers citizens; improves care; and healthy populations. Alongside the What Good Looks Like guidance, NHSX has published a proposal for ‘Who Pays for What,’ aiming to set out a more precise division of responsibility for technology funding. Having a system-wide conversation about digital transformation is often tricky because different stakeholders have different perspectives on what constitutes success. Implementing these two frameworks provides concrete measures of success and identifies the minimum amount of spending required to achieve those results.


Scientists Use Nanotechnology To Detect Bone-Healing Stem Cells

As reported in World Health.net, researchers at the University of Southampton have developed a new way of using nanomaterials to identify and enrich skeletal stem cells — a discovery which could eventually lead to new treatments for major bone fractures and the repair of lost or damaged bone. Working together, a team of physicists, chemists, and tissue engineering experts used specially designed gold nanoparticles to ‘seek out’ specific human bone stem cells — creating a fluorescent glow to reveal their presence among other types of cells and allow them to be isolated or ‘enriched.’

Why it’s important – Among the challenges our aging population poses is the need for novel and cost-effective approaches to bone repair. With one in three women and one in five men at risk of osteoporotic fractures worldwide, the costs are high, with bone fractures alone costing the European economy €17 billion and the US economy $20 billion annually. The researchers concluded their new technique is more straightforward and quicker than other methods and up to 50-500 times more effective at enriching stem cells.


CRISPR-Engineered Cells Release Drug in Response to Inflammation When Implanted into Mice

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have used CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing to engineer induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that can be implanted subcutaneously to deliver an anti-cytokine biologic drug in response to inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

An article in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News covered the early research that demonstrated that when implanted into a mouse model of rheumatoid arthritis, the engineered cells automatically sensed and responded to inflammatory cytokines and produce therapeutic levels of the drug, which reduced inflammation and also prevented bone erosion.

Why it’s important – Doctors often treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis with injections or infusions of anti-inflammatory biologic drugs. Still, those drugs can cause significant side effects when delivered long enough and at high enough doses to have beneficial effects. The approach used in this research allows those stem cells to remain in the body for a long time and secrete a drug whenever there is a flare of inflammation.

“The idea of delivering such drugs essentially on-demand in response to arthritis flares is extremely attractive to those of us who work with arthritis patients because the approach could limit the adverse effects that accompany continuous high-dose administration of these drugs.”

Christine Pham, MD, director of the Division of Rheumatology and the Guy and Ella Mae Magness Professor of Medicine.

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