An exploding array of digital health companies will converge on Las Vegas this week to showcase the latest advances in using data and algorithms to try to solve the world’s toughest health problems.
The annual Consumer Electronics Show — a sort of Sundance Film Festival of must-have gadgets — has become an increasingly popular venue for health technology firms looking to make a splash in the $7 trillion global medical industry. And this year’s event will be no different, bringing a particular focus on chronic disease, an area where purveyors of new software and wearables see breakthrough potential.
CES, as it is known, is not a medical conference. But it is becoming a crossroads for health care and high technology at a time when personal information collected through smartphones and sensors is unleashing a wave of new diagnostic tools and digital treatments.
Yet it is an event that tends to be thick on glitz and marketing, and thin on prospective peer-reviewed studies. And some experts caution that the real-world results of digital health products have not caught up to the promises made in press releases.
“We’re still at a very early stage,” said Dr. Eric Topol, an artificial intelligence expert and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego. “The clinical community wants to see these technologies working in the real world, not in some retrospective performance of an algorithm in a dataset.”
But CES is also a place to learn what’s coming next and to gauge which products are likely to gain traction in the months ahead. Here’s a rundown of technologies and treatment approaches likely to take the spotlight in Las Vegas and beyond.
Some of the most rapid advancements are occurring in cardiac care, where companies such as AliveCor and Apple are embedding EKGs in watches and other wearables.
On Tuesday, experts will convene a discussion on “the quantum leap” in heart monitoring and what patients and physicians can do to make use of the constant stream of data being produced by these devices.
“This has the potential to empower patients to take a more active role in assessing their health,” said Dr. Anne Curtis, a University of Buffalo cardiologist who will be speaking at the conference.
She said she uses AliveCor’s KardiaMobile product, which allows patients to take their EKG using a smartphone and pocket-sized electrodes when they begin experiencing symptoms. “I’ve made diagnoses on patients by looking at these [recordings] a few days later,” Curtis said. “All you have to do is have the symptoms last long enough for a patient to turn on an app and make a 30-second recording.”
Curtis said her university has received research funding from AliveCor. She also appeared in an advertisement for the company, though she received no personal compensation for the ad. She said the ability for patients to conduct their own EKGs, while helpful in most cases, can also be burdensome for physicians.
“The problem I’ve had with some patients is that they are constantly sending you data,” Curtis said. “In the extreme cases, you have to tell them you’re not going to look at it any more because they don’t have any problems.”
Heart health monitors are proliferating quickly in the marketplace, with some including multiple functions. Withings, a maker of mobile technologies, will debut a three-in-one device at CES that the company says can track blood pressure, monitor valve health, and check for atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm that can increase a patient’s risk of stroke.
Topol, also a cardiologist, said the broader concern with cardiac monitors is that the data might be used inappropriately to justify unnecessary tests or medication use.
“With atrial fibrillation, you could end up getting blood thinners without even needing them, because some doctors are not up on who deserves to get treated,” he said. “And then you have the risks of those medicines, which are substantial.”
Digital diabetes care
Several technology companies are promising to use digital medicine to improve control of type 2 diabetes symptoms.
A company called GlucoseZone is scheduled to appear at CES to pitch a digitally guided exercise program it says can help diabetes patients lose weight, lower their blood sugar, and reduce or eliminate the need for medication. The program uses live digital chats with coaches to deliver customized workouts and nutrition advice.
Companies such as Omada Health have taken a similar tack in recent years, using patients’ data to provide instant feedback and spur behavior change. The company has won buy-in from several large employers and insurers who are using its services to provide access to preventive care.
On Wednesday, the health care giant Abbott is hosting a lunch to showcase FreeStyle Libre, its personal glucose monitor. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration last August, the product is designed to replace finger-prick testing and bulkier monitoring systems. The quarter-sized sensor can be worn for 14 days and attaches to the back of a patient’s arm, providing real-time glucose levels, an eight-hour history, and a trend of where glucose levels will likely go next.
The product’s cost is fully or partially reimbursed in more than 40 countries, from the U.S. to Japan, and it is available via prescription in pharmacies. “It makes it effortless to capture dense glucose data,” said Joel Goldsmith, senior director of digital platforms and diabetes care Abbott. He added that data presented at the American Diabetes Association conference last year showed that more frequent glucose monitoring with the device was associated with better disease management. “We were able to show a very strong correlation between that increased testing frequency and the most accepted measure of glycemic control,” he said.
Medtronic and IBM Watson released a product earlier this year called Sugar.IQ, which uses artificial intelligence software to track glucose levels and show how they’re being affected by medications and lifestyle choices. It is unclear how such products are impacting outcomes for patients.
Topol said the use of artificial intelligence in diabetes applications is at an elementary stage and can only be improved with a greater variety of data. “What we want is a smart algorithm that brings in all the data on the person — their activity, what they’re eating and drinking, their sleep and stress level and their gut microbiome,” he said. “It’s the same for physicians. You want to have all that person’s data — not just one thing.”
Management of chronic pain
Against the backdrop of the opioid crisis, pharmaceutical and technology companies are investing heavily in technology to treat chronic pain.
One presentation will focus on updates in the use of neuromodulation, a therapy that uses electrical or chemical stimulation to treat everything from chronic headaches to substance abuse. It’s been around since the 1990s, but modern versions feature implantable sensors that can supply data to wearables and voice technology.
The session, billed as the “solution to the opioid crisis no one is talking about,” will feature commentary from executives at Boston Scientific, Abbott, Medtronic, and a company called Nervo. The firms have developed products that treat chronic pain through brain and spinal cord stimulation and work with mobile technologies to monitor patient progress.
Digital technology companies are also targeting mental illness and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, where traditional pharmaceutical approaches have failed to generate positive results. Several firms are pitching immersive virtual reality products to help treat depression and schizophrenia, and a presentation on Wednesday will feature a discussion on suicide prevention with executives from Click Therapeutics and Cigna.