Health Tech News This Week – August 26, 2023

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

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AI Revolution: Paralyzed Woman ‘Speaks’ via Digital Avatar

Researchers created a groundbreaking brain-computer interface (BCI) that allows a paralyzed woman to communicate through a digital avatar. This advancement marks the first-ever synthesis of speech or facial expressions directly from brain signals. As reported in Neuroscience News online, Edward Chang, MD, chair of neurological surgery at UCSF, who has worked on the technology known as a brain-computer interface, or BCI, for more than a decade, hopes this latest research breakthrough, appearing Aug. 23, 2023, in Nature, will lead to an FDA-approved system that enables speech from brain signals soon. To create the voice, the team devised an algorithm for synthesizing speech, which they personalized to sound like her voice before the injury, using a recording of her speaking at her wedding.

YouTube Video Credit: UCSF

Why it’s important – It is the first time that either speech or facial expressions have been synthesized from brain signals. The system can also decode these signals into text at nearly 80 words per minute, a vast improvement over commercially available technology. The field is moving so quickly that experts believe federally approved wireless versions might be available within the next decade. Different methods might be optimal for certain patients.

Infographic of the week – AI at the Mayo Clinic summarizes a recent discussion between John Halamka, President of the Mayo Clinic Platform, and Dr. Eric Topol on AI use cases at the Mayo Clinic.

Most Americans support value-based care but prefer other terms, research finds

Most Americans support the idea of value-based care but don’t understand or resonate with the term; according to new research from the United States of Care, Anastassia Gliadkovskaya reports in Fierce Healthcare. USofCare is a self-described nonpartisan think tank focused on building a more equitable healthcare system. Its latest research relied on (PDF) virtual focus groups with a dozen participants, a national survey of 1,000 respondents, a “ReMesh” session, or an AI-driven feedback collection platform that engaged 100 participants more deeply. It found that people desire targeted improvements to their care experience and believe the healthcare system is too fragmented, with little coordination between providers. They also overthink the time spent waiting versus seeing their doctors, and they worry that people with money are prioritized in getting appointments and the care they desire.

Why it’s important – People responded best to a system that prioritizes the patient experience over quantity—and they want a care experience where the provider genuinely cares about them as a whole person rather than a collection of symptoms, the research found. Reframing value-based care as patient-first care is one way to emphasize the benefits of the model, the group said.

Medicare approves WashU Medicine’s whole-genome test for blood cancers

A new test for two blood cancers – developed by a team at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis – is the first whole-genome sequencing test for cancer to be approved for reimbursement by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The test, known as ChromoSeq, advances precision medicine approaches for treating blood cancers by identifying the full suite of genetic changes in a patient’s cancer cells, which provides crucial information that physicians can use to help determine the optimal treatment strategy for individual patients.

Why it’s important – Under the current standard of care, genetic changes are assessed using a combination of three tests: cytogenetics, which reveals chromosomal rearrangements and abnormalities; fluorescence in-situ hybridization, which also identifies chromosomal abnormalities as well as other mutations; and targeted sequencing of specific genes that previously have been linked to AML and MDS. “All of the information that you can get from the three different tests that doctors now order as a standard of care, we can get from ChromoSeq in one test,” said Meagan Jacoby, MD, Ph.D., an associate professor of medicine. “That can be important because sometimes the other tests don’t produce reliable results, and without that data, we have less confidence in our ability to assess a patient’s risk of aggressive disease. Knowing whether a patient is at low or high risk of aggressive disease is essential to know how to treat each patient most appropriately.”

Microsoft and Epic expand AI collaboration to accelerate generative AI’s impact in healthcare, addressing the industry’s most pressing needs

The two companies combined Microsoft’s large-scale cloud and AI technologies with Epic’s deep understanding of the healthcare industry and clinical workflows to address many current clinician issues. This week, they announced the expansion of that strategic initiative to bring AI to healthcare at scale, integrating conversational, ambient, and generative AI technologies across the Epic electronic health record (EHR) ecosystem.

Why it’s important – Intended to speed the development of solutions for healthcare’s most critical needs, the initiative will expand secure access to AI-powered clinical insights and administrative tools within a wide range of Epic modules to enhance patient care, increase operational efficiency, improve healthcare experiences, and support the financial integrity of health systems globally.

How Risant Health aims to outshine disruptors

Giles Bruce in Beckers Health IT reports( that when Kaiser Permanente agreed to acquire Geisinger and form a new value-based care organization, Risant Health, it had competition in mind: for-profit healthcare disruptors. In recent years, companies such as CVS Health and Optum have been positioning themselves for the potential shift from fee-for-service to value-based care. Their moves include merging with payers and acquiring providers, transitioning toward the “payvider” model that the Oakland, Calif.-based health system pioneered.

“While some new players share our vision of integrated value-based care for all, we see other new and disruptive market entrants whose business models seem aimed at serving just the healthiest people, which increases fragmentation and ultimately increases the cost of care for everyone.”

Greg Adams, chair and CEO of Kaiser Permanente

Mr. Adams said Risant Health’s goal is not consolidation but, instead, “supporting nonprofit community health systems.” Its name, he said, comes from helping others “rise” while remaining “constant” in its mission and values. That would be done through data-driven population health, addressing social determinants, and aligning financial incentives with quality to reduce costs. He said smaller health systems’ move toward value-based care could stall if they “don’t have access to the best practices, tools, technology, and systems — all of which Risant Health can bring.”

Why it’s important – The optimistic view is that Kaiser Permanente “will be able to amalgamate their treasure trove of best-in-class electronic tools into a unified, enterprise-infrastructure platform for population health management,” said Jeffrey Guterman, MD, chief research and innovation officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. Dr. Guterman said he hopes the “optimist in me” wins out and Risant Health speeds the “recognition that fee-for-service sick care has little to do with improving the health of a population.” “If Risant can serve as the first nationwide platform to begin this journey of data-driven integrated outcomes, we all have a stake in its success,” he said.

Funyuns and Flu Shots? Gas Station Company Ventures Into Urgent Care

When Lou Ellen Horwitz learned that a gas station company would open a chain of urgent care clinics, she was skeptical. As CEO of the Urgent Care Association, Horwitz knows the industry is booming. Its market size has doubled in 10 years, as patients, particularly younger ones, are drawn to the convenience of the same-day appointments and extended hours offered by the walk-in clinics. As reported by Bram Sable-Smith, Midwest Correspondent at KFF News, QuikTrip had been providing primary care services to its own employees for years, through third parties and eventually at its own clinics. Five years ago, longtime “QuikTripper” Brice Habeck was tasked with leading a team to figure out how the company could offer such medical services to the general public, too. His team quickly realized that urgent care had much in common with their retail spaces. MedWise has opened 12 clinics so far, all in the Tulsa area, and now belongs to Horwitz’s trade group. QuikTrip owns the company, but the two businesses don’t share buildings or names.

Why it’s important – QuikTrip is not the first company to see potential in the urgent care industry. Private equity firms have been investing in urgent care’s consumer-friendly niche for over a decade. And nearly half of urgent cares are affiliated with hospital systems — which often see urgent care as a front door for bringing in new patients while taking some burden off their busy emergency rooms. But, urgent care and retail clinics may not be a panacea for rising healthcare costs. A study co-authored by Harvard Medical School health policy professor Ateev Mehrotra shows urgent care clinics reduce less serious visits to the emergency room, yet 37 urgent care visits are needed to prevent a single trip to the ER, increasing total health care spending with all those trips. Disrupting the healthcare industry is easier said than done, even for businesses with a successful track record of good customer service in a low-margin business such as gas stations.

How futuristic technology is changing the way we monitor people with cancer

Under current treatment models, people with cancer generally attend hospitals for pre-treatment assessments, including blood, vitals, and symptom assessments, to check they are fit for their next cycle of therapy. This remote patient monitoring solution, Liberty, has been specifically designed to enable testing in the home. Alongside vitals and symptoms monitoring, it also includes the world’s first at-home blood count analyzer to check for hematological toxicity, one of the most common side effects of cancer therapy. By allowing cancer patients to self-test and self-report in the home, their health status can be assessed without needing to wait for a physical appointment slot or travel miles for a treatment assessment. This reduces the costs of traveling to the hospital and taking time off work and gives people as much freedom as possible as they go through their treatment journey. Perhaps most importantly, it gives cancer patients time to spend as they wish, with family or resting before their next treatment.

Image Credit: Entia Liberty

To perform a test, the patient simply inserts a single drop of blood, collected by a finger-prick, into the laptop-sized device, which uses centrifugation to separate the blood, advanced optics to image the sample, and unique software to analyze the cells. The patient’s blood results are then digitally reported via a secure cloud network to a dashboard used by the oncology team. After reviewing the results in conjunction with other parameters, the physician can have a video consultation with the patient to discuss any red flags and mitigating therapy, or if there’s nothing to report, leave the patient free to prepare for their next treatment cycle.

Why it’s important – Entia’s approach is designed to provoke a fundamental shift towards a preventative healthcare model by using technology to identify concerns early on. In the case of oncology, regular data snapshots allow clinicians to respond quickly and efficiently at the first sign of potential side effects, reducing the likelihood of patients needing a treatment break or developing serious complications, like neutropenic sepsis. Remote patient monitoring, when deployed at scale, can massively reduce the number of in-person appointments, freeing up time for healthcare services and increasing their capacity to treat more patients. It also streamlines the monitoring process and simplifies care pathways, raising standards across the board.

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