Newswise – Digital technology is changing medicine as fundamentally as every other aspect of life. The potential to improve care is enormous. But successful, equitable interventions require the skills and input of many people, from clinicians to computer programmers, but also community members who could benefit from new technologies.

Bringing these different experts together was the goal of the Digital Health Initiative 2024 symposium, which brought together more than a hundred scientists in February this year. The digital tools they are developing have the potential to extend care beyond the clinic, help physicians optimize care for each patient, and empower people to self-manage their care.

Fast data analysis in the clinic

Computers can synthesize large amounts of data faster than any human, which can help doctors make informed decisions in medical situations where every day – or every minute – is crucial. For example, an artificial intelligence-based tool partially developed by the moderator Mark Yandell, PhD, Professor of human genetics at the University of Utah Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine can sift through masses of genomic data to quickly find diagnoses for babies in the NICU. And new tools that predict and display the effectiveness of anesthetics over the course of a procedure could help anesthesiologists optimize dosage in real time, he said Ken Johnson, MD, Professor of Anesthesiology at the School of Medicine.

Health monitoring beyond hospital walls

Other researchers focused on the power of digital health tools to capture relevant health information in people’s daily lives. Two decades of research have shown that allowing people to self-report symptoms from home can improve the quality of life for cancer patients, he explains Elizabeth Sloss, PhD, RN, Research assistant professor at the College of Nursing. Their goal is to take the next step and integrate symptom reporting systems into routine care. Meanwhile, Selena Cho, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at the John and Marcia Price College of Engineering, is moving forward Wearable devices that can detect long-term concussion symptoms.

Empower patients

Technology can also increase patients’ freedom of choice over their medical care. The Going Home Toolkit, an app for patients leaving the hospital, helps people organize their networks to meet needs like food and transportation, he said Jesse Ferraro, Project Manager in the Therapeutic Games and Apps Lab at the School of Medicine. Jorie Butler, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomedical Informatics and Research Associate Professor of Geriatrics at the School of Medicine, has developed an app for older pain patients and their physicians to help make shared decisions and prioritize patients’ values. And a computer game-like tool created by Sarah Shizuko Morimoto, PsyD, associate professor of population health sciences at the School of Medicine, promises to help people with late-life major depression change their own brain activity for the better.

The projects presented at the DHI symposium were promising, symposium participants Tatiana Allen-Webb, CCRP, The deputy director of the Utah Area Health Education Centers program warns that any advances must be carefully considered to avoid worsening health disparities. “So many of the things we do are aimed at a specific patient population, but sometimes the populations that need it most are skipped,” she said. For example, programs that include a smartphone-based app exclude people who cannot afford or use a smartphone.

However, when properly integrated into existing systems from local providers, digital health tools can improve health equity, he said Paul Estabrooks, PhD, Professor of Health and Kinesiology at the College of Health. Like many other symposium participants, Estabrooks took time after the research presentations to talk about new ideas for digital health at shared discussion tables. “We can use technology as an extension of the health workforce to reduce disparities and build trust in communities,” Estabrooks said.

One way to ensure digital tools work for everyone is to listen and collaborate, said Laura Marquez, senior director of digital transformation at U of U Health. Marquez came to the symposium to develop improvements to patient-focused tools like MyChart. To effectively remove barriers between patients and their health information, researchers must collaborate across many disciplines – which is why the DHI symposium is so important, Marquez said. “Events like this help break down those walls.”

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