Industry Focus: The Rise of Data-Driven Health Tech Innovation

Artificial intelligence-based healthcare technologies have contributed to improved drug discoveries, tumor identification, diagnosis, risk assessments, electronic health records (EHR), and mental health tools, among others. Thanks in large part to AI and the availability of health-related data, health tech is one of the fastest growing segments of healthcare and one of the reasons why the sector ranks highest on many lists.

According to a 2016 workforce study by Georgetown University, the healthcare industry experienced the largest employment growth among all industries since December 2007, netting 2.3 million jobs (about an 8% increase). Fourteen percent of all US workers work in healthcare, making it the country’s largest employment center. According to the latest government figures, the US spends the most on healthcare per person ($10,348) than any other country. In fact, healthcare spending is nearly 18 percent of the US gross domestic product (GDP), a figure that is expected to increase. The healthcare IT segment is expected to grow at a CAGR greater than 10% through 2019. The number of US patents issued in 2017 for AI-infused healthcare-related inventions rose more than 40% compared to 2016.

Investment in health tech has led to the development of some impressive AI-based tools. Researchers at a major university medical center, for example, invented a way to use AI to identify from open source data the emergence of health-related events around the world. The machine learning system they’d created extracted useful information and classified it according to disease-specific taxonomies. At the time of its development ten years ago, the “supervised” and “unsupervised” natural language processing models were leaps ahead of what others were using at the time and earned the inventors national recognition. More recently, medical researchers have created a myriad of new technologies from innovative uses of machine learning technologies.

What most of the above and other health tech innovations today have in common is what drives much of the health tech sector: lots of data. Big data sets, especially labeled data, are needed by AI technologists to train and test machine learning algorithms that produce models capable of “learning” what to look for in new data. And there is no better place to find big data sets than in the healthcare sector. According to an article last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, by 2012 as much as 30% of the world’s stored data was being generated in the healthcare industry.

Traditional healthcare companies are finding value in data-driven AI. Biopharmaceutical company Roche’s recent announcement that it is acquiring software firm Flatiron Health Inc. for $1.9 billion illustrates the value of being able to access health-related data. Flatiron, led by former Google employees, makes software for real-time acquisition and analysis of oncology-specific EHR data and other structured and unstructured hospital-generated data for diagnostic and research purposes. Roche plans to leverage Flatiron’s algorithms–and all of its data–to enhance Roche’s ability to personalize healthcare strategies by way of accelerating the development of new cancer treatments. In a world powered by AI, where data is key to building new products that attract new customers, Roche is now tapped into one of the largest sources of labeled data.

Companies not traditionally in healthcare are also seeing opportunities in health-related data. Google’s AI-focused research division, for example, recently reported in Nature a promising use of so-called deep learning algorithms (a computation network structured to mimic how neurons fire in the brain) to make cardiovascular risk predictions from retinal image data. After training their model, Google scientists said they were able to identify and quantify risk factors in retinal images and generate patient-specific risk predictions.

The growth of available healthcare data and the infusion of AI health tech in the healthcare industry will challenge companies to evolve. Health tech holds the promise of better and more efficient research, manufacturing, and distribution of healthcare products and services, though some have also raised concerns about who will benefit most from these advances, bias in data sets, anonymizing data for privacy reasons, and other legal issues that go beyond healthcare, issues that will need to be addressed.

To be successful, tomorrow’s healthcare leaders may be those who have access to data that drives innovation in the health tech segment. This may explain why, according to a recent survey, healthcare CIOs whose companies plan spending increases in 2018 indicated that their investments will likely be directed first toward AI and related technologies.