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Tony Shaw

Health Care

Semantic Technology and the Health Care Revolution

Creating greater collaboration, visibility, and accountability in the nation's health care system

Published: Monday, May 24, 2010 - 07:32

A woman in Southern California’s Inland Empire, age 53, is suffering from an unidentified neurological disorder. It started as an odd numbness in her left arm, and now she feels an uncomfortable, persistent tingling and prickling pain from the bottom of her feet to the top of her eyebrows. She feels these symptoms to varying degrees at all times of the day and night.

The woman brought her symptoms to the attention of her doctor who, baffled, sent her to a specialist. The specialist ran a number of tests and ruled out all the most likely possibilities, but like the woman’s general practitioner, the specialist was left puzzled. The specialist presented the woman’s case to a panel of leading neurologists from the state’s top hospitals, but no one could make a diagnosis or offer an effective plan of treatment.

This woman’s case is not a hypothetical situation, and unfortunately, it is not a unique situation.

It must be noted that this particular woman has comprehensive health coverage, regular access to health services, and has received excellent care from all the medical professionals who have worked to assist her. She has received the best care that is currently available. However, informed only by the woman’s symptoms and a plethora of negative test results, no one has had the right information or experience to help her.

But the difficulties of this woman’s condition could soon be a thing of the past. Where limited resources have previously left her without answers, new technologies are being pioneered to exponentially increase her doctor’s access to medical knowledge and in turn, the chance of finding a cure.

These technologies are being developed by the same people who originally created the World Wide Web. They are called semantic technologies, and are currently being explored, improved, and applied to health care in a movement known as Health 3.0.

But what exactly are semantic technologies and how can they improve our nation’s health?

The word “semantic” is broadly defined as “meaning,” and in the context of the internet, the term is used to describe how computers can understand the meaning of words and text, which could be on a page or in a database.

Traditionally, computers have not been able to understand the meaning of the words and numbers that they process; but with semantic technologies, they can start to do so. This is not to suggest that computers are intelligent, but when they have enough information from which to work, they can make connections between different pieces of information that wouldn’t otherwise be brought together. In a health care environment, this is very valuable because it’s simply not possible for any one medical practitioner to have enough knowledge to recognize every symptom or pattern of illness and connect it to every available cure.

Because computers can process information much faster than people, semantic technologies for data linking can greatly reduce the time to make the correct diagnosis and perhaps curtail the patient’s uncertainty and pain from months to a few days or hours.

The opportunities for combining and analyzing vast amounts of data are enormous. Just imagine what would be possible if electronic health records (EHRs) could be matched with public and private medical research, health-trend data, health care professional profiles, and all the latest medical research. In this case, the Southern California woman could be matched to the right physician immediately, have her treatment measured against national averages, and be tapped into the latest research almost immediately.

Throughout the next several years, our nation’s health care system will become increasingly digitized and semantically organized in an effort to achieve an open health care information architecture, also known as Health 3.0. The digitization of the nation’s health records combined with the widespread utilization of semantic technologies will improve access, quality, and affordability of health care across the board.

Such an interconnected wealth of facts and resources could lead to a greatly accelerated and heightened diffusion of knowledge, a promotion of public health and preparedness, improved quality of care for all, as well as significant decreases to the general cost of health care.

Health care costs currently sit at more than double the average nation’s individual cost of health care while our nation’s average life expectancy falls about 10 percent below the average nation’s.

With a Health 3.0 system, personal information would only be made publicly accessible once it has been depersonalized. In that form it could be utilized to create enhanced medical and clinical correlations, monitor public health, determine health practice efficacy, and conduct cost-benefit analysis of various modalities of treatments. This utilization of depersonalized health data has already been seen in the California Health Interview Survey, a biannual survey of 50,000 California residents that provides invaluable health data utilized at the local, state, and national levels. However, the information gathered in the survey is not yet semantically coded. Once it is coded, the accessibility and thus the usefulness of the data will increase exponentially.

Of course, the incorporation of semantic technologies into America’s health care system will not be an easy task and must be approached with the greatest of caution, as personal health records comprise much of the information being handled. Systems for maintaining the security of EHRs and other proprietary information are currently being implemented by Health 3.0, such as government standards like “The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy and Security.” The HIPAA Privacy Rule protects the privacy of individually identifiable health information; the HIPAA Security Rule sets national standards for the security of electronic protected health information.

Health 3.0 also faces a significant challenge in that the application of semantic technologies to health care requires at least some level of cooperation between insurance companies, emergency care, hospitals, pharmacies, general practitioners, specialists, researchers, and patients. Achieving this cooperation will almost certainly require a considerable amount of time and legislation to be fully realized. But once partnerships are formed, the open health care information architecture of Health 3.0 would be able to take shape, creating greater collaboration, visibility, and accountability in our health care system which will ultimately lead to a healthier nation.

This means that in a few years time the Southern California woman dealing with an unidentified neurological disorder could have access not just to a panel of local experts but to the databases of every leading neurologist in the world. It means that her health care professionals could easily research other cases similar to hers and identify a course of treatment that will bring her results. And it means that as soon as new data is generated with regard to her disorder, the woman could have full, open access to it.

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About The Author

Tony Shaw’s picture

Tony Shaw

Tony Shaw is the publisher of the Semantic Universe journal, and educational chairman of SemTech, the world’s largest semantic technology conference. Shaw has broad expertise in the assessment of emerging technologies and facilitates the elite TTI/Vanguard strategy forum for chief technical officers.