Digital Technologies Disrupting Public Health Surveillance

Digital technologies have been extremely disruptive to many sectors, and most observers predict a similar impact to healthcare. In anticipation of the resulting opportunities, venture investment in digital health technologies has grown rapidly over the last few years but may have peaked recently, according to Dr. Martin Sumner-Smith, a senior advisor at MaRS Health Venture Services in Toronto, and this year’s keynote speaker at the CARRFS January 2016 Innovation Summit.

Dr. Martin Sumner-Smith, MaRS

Dr. Martin Sumner-Smith, MaRS

“The existing healthcare institutions are proving resistant to change as a result of issues around economic pressures and reimbursement, regulations, efficacy and safety, privacy, entrenched behaviours and other factors” says Dr. Sumner-Smith, who advises three dozen digital health startup ventures in his role at MaRS. Dr. Smith, who originally trained as a molecular biologist and has worked in several capacities in biotechnology, bioinformatics and enterprise software, says the resistance to change on the part of healthcare institutions will likely mean that most innovation will take place outside these institutions, in the same way that ride-sharing and music downloads developed outside the existing taxi and music industries.

One of the characteristics of newer digital approaches is that they involve managing data in volumes that are several orders of magnitude greater than previous practices. As Dr. Sumner-Smith points out, “there is no evidence that existing healthcare institutions have the capacity to accommodate such volumes. Someone using a simple consumer device that monitors several biological parameters continuously will quickly accumulate more data than is likely stored in official institutional health records.” At this time measureable biological parameters are of limited use in the practice of healthcare but it is clear that comparatively trivial parameters can have great value when analyzed in combination and at scale (i.e. Big Data). In addition, impending developments in micro-sensors are likely soon to lead to the cheap, easy and accurate measurement of a far larger number of biological parameters.

“Decisions as to how to provide the best possible healthcare services will increasingly require an understanding of how all relevant data is generated, where it is stored and how it can best be combined and analyzed”, says Dr. Sumner-Smith.