Digital tools to individualise medicine


In our Zoom for Thought on June 23rd, 2020, UCD Discovery Director Prof Patricia Maguire spoke to Eric Topol (pictured), Founder and Director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, about “Digital tools to individualise medicine”. In case you missed it, here are our Top Takeaway Thoughts


Bespoke medicine 

Medicine should be bespoke, not general. Each human being has a different biology, physiology, anatomy and environment but “we treat everybody the same rather than recognising their individuality.”  Digital tools like heart rate and environment sensors, along with the ability to sequence the genome and the microbiome of the gut, have been game-changers. “Now we can understand each person at an unprecedented level and that’s so important for preventing conditions that a person would be susceptible to.” 


AI to prevent doctor “burn-out”

As people generate their own medical data and algorithms interpret it, clinicians will have more time to bond with their patients. “The most far-reaching thing is to be able to have the machine support to be able to take back medicine”.  This support should usher in a steady decline in the “global epidemic” of doctor burnout. “We’re going to have help not just from machines but also from patients having more autonomy.”


Take back your data

Topol believes patients should have access to their own medical records on their smartphones. He turns the “Doctor knows best” approach on its head in his book The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine is in Your Hands. Empowering patients to take more control of their healthcare is “the really important thing”. Secure medical data platforms that allow people to share their data “with whom and how much and when… that’s what we should have. It’s an entitlement, I think”. 


Digital Twins

Topol is ambitious about what AI might help us achieve with this wealth of patient data. He is in favour of an integrated, worldwide health system “so that each person has digital twins that they could learn from. So really we have to think much bigger than we used to think because we didn’t have the capability of analysing data”.


Legal responsibility

With healthcare under the combined watch of medics, patients and algorithms, who takes responsibility if something goes wrong? Topol says we are “much too concerned” with litigation. He believes that when clinicians have the precious time to form trusting, empathetic, compassionate bonds with their patients “the chance of there being medical legal issues is almost zero”


Democratisation of medicine

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a rise in “telemedicine” - virtual visits to GP surgeries and hospitals. Topol says we will see this “embedded in the practice in the future”. Digital surveillance will also increase as clinicians examine data tracked by watches and wearables that “monitor things like resting heart rate and other metrics that are easily collected”. As people generate their own medical data and get a “doctor-less” diagnosis from algorithms, we will see a “democratisation of medicine”. But doctors will still do the treatments and nurture the relationship. 


Future of medicine

Topol expressed a wish to go back in time because “medicine is just getting going now in terms of its extraordinary potential”. What he loves most about medicine is the human-to-human bond, “and the fact that we can get that back - it’s had so much erosion - that’s what’s exciting to me”.


This article was brought to you by the UCD Institute for Discovery, fuelling interdisciplinary research collaborations.