Even before Amazon boldly announced plans to enter the world of healthcare last week, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have already been working on the technology that will make it all work.
Kesh Kesavades, the director of the Health Care Engineering Systems Center (HCESC) at Illinois, calls the technology, the “Internet of Personalized Things,” which brings together the triage of natural language processing, sensors and devices which can connect to the Internet or cloud, and artificial intelligence.
“The whole field is waiting to happen,” Kesavadas said.
How does it all work? Often a patient recovering from surgery needs to stay in the hospital an extra day or two, just so doctors can continue monitoring vital signs. Instead of spending say an extra $15,000 for that extra time, patients can return home where they tend to recover quicker. They are sent home with devices that measure blood pressure, pulse and oxygen levels, as well as more advanced instruments like an EKG. These vitals are constantly monitored, so recovering patients have the peace of mind that a doctor will be notified immediately if there are any alarming factors.
Kesh and his team, which includes professor R.S. Srinivas and research engineer Pavithra Rajeswaran, are also taking advantage of the Amazon Echo technology in addition to the sensors to help in diagnosis.
“Amazon Echo is not just a home assisting device,” Rajeswaran said. “It comes with a platform where you can build a program for Echo to talk to patients at home and get data, send it to the cloud, and integrate it with other AI systems. In the back end, the AI system can go through the patient’s profile and report to the doctor as required the condition of the patient. The doctor can make care decisions.”
Rajeswaran points out that this technology only reports the basic information. The back-end AI system is part of the hospital’s security network.
If someone has a healthcare concern, the Echo can ask a similar set of questions as an emergency room doctor to come up with the diagnosis. Rather than needing to leave your home, the answers to those questions are used to help make the diagnosis.
“These are things you might call a doctor for and have to wait for someone to call you back,” Kesavadas said. “The AI system, in conjunction with the data, can provide excellent feedback to you. Obviously, they are not replacing the doctors, but it gives some healthcare support inside your home without having to go to an emergency room or having to wait two or three days.”
Doctors can take the results of the tests and the answers to the questions to determine if a patient is actually having a traumatic episode. Based on this data, a decision will be made to determine whether the hospital needs to be called or not.
“The only reason you would need to go the hospital is if the system realizes this person cannot be treated at home,” Kesavadas said. “That would cut down on the number of people who go to the ER. At the same time, there are people who don’t take the time or want to bear the expense of the ER visit, who actually should have gone there. These tests are easy and convenient and give patients all the data they need to make an informed decision. Having these Internet of Personalized Things will make life much safer.”
The technology can be life changing for senior citizens, who often live alone. In addition to noticing early warning signs of heart attacks or stroke, through AI, they can ask questions and make observations which can determine if they are a fall risk, for example.
“We want to make healthcare friendlier,” Kesavadas said. “Even if the doctor is not in the room, they could attach a sensor to look at you. You can stand up and walk in front of it. Using Microsoft Kinect, that system can automatically tell you if you are walking very weak or you are regaining your strength.”
Researchers at HCESC are also connecting the Echo and the aforementioned medical devices. You can tell Alexa (or the Echo) to switch on the blood pressure cuff, Skype with the doctor, call for an Uber, or dial 9-1-1.
“It comes with a natural language processing in front end where you can literally talk to devices that can talk,” explained Ramavarapu “RS” Sreenivas, a professor of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering. “We want take it one step further and have a friendly conversation to evaluate the mental equity of the person.”
Sreenivas is part of a team that is developing a healthcare kiosk for the home similar to ones found at your local pharmacy. It can ask the same identifiable questions like date of birth you might get asked at the doctor’s office to verify your identity then interface with Alexa to take blood pressure, etc., and send those results to physicians via the cloud.
Of course, one of the issues is whether an aging population would be comfortable interacting with Alexa. To test that, Sreenivas is working with the Clark Lindsey Retirement Village in Urbana to set up rooms where residents can use their voice to turn on lights, fans, the TV, etc.
“The recent news that Amazon is partnering with big companies to get into healthcare is very interesting,” Kesavadas concluded. “Amazon is doing so, I believe, mainly because they already have technology like the Amazon Echo, which can be used to integrate into the healthcare system. Amazon not only can be the one at home who advises you, but also connect you with these IoT (Internet of Things) sensors, give you more feedback, and finally ship medicine directly to your home. They can corner the kind of technologies which pharmacies and clinics provide today. I think that Amazon is looking at a completely new industry by using its existing technologies.”
About HCESC: The Health Care Engineering Systems Center (HCESC) provides clinical immersion to engineers and fosters collaborations between engineers and physicians. The aim is to develop new technologies and cyber-physical systems, enhance medical training and practice. HCESC, has partnered with the Jump Simulation and Education Center of the OSF Saint Francis Medical Center at Peoria, Illinois in an exciting initiative, known as Applied Research for Community Health through Engineering and Simulation (ARCHES) This project is an example of the types of projects being pursued by the Jump ARCHES initiative.