Medical errors are a huge and growing problem in the US. After heart disease and cancer, clinical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the country, killing at least 250,000 people each year, according to a study published by John Hopkins University. It is such a huge problem that around 10% of all US deaths are estimated to have been caused by medical error.
The majority of these deaths are preventable.
Medical error is down to a number of reasons: Medical malpractice, misdiagnosis, preventable complications and many more. The John Hopkins report, however, specifically linked the overall issue to a lack of communication and access between healthcare and crucial data not being shared between health providers. The report proposed of a future where data was more efficiently shared internationally and nationally "in the same way as clinicians share research and innovation about coronary artery disease, melanoma and influenza".
Amazon, a giant with its finger on the pulse of so, so many industries, has just begun to recognize the potential of revolutionizing data sharing in healthcare. On November 8, Amazon unveiled new, HIPAA approved machine learning (ML) capabilities aimed at helping hospitals with their administration data. In particular, its new service Amazon Transcribe is a "speech-to-text service that automatically creates text transcripts from audio files will allow healthcare organizations to create text transcripts calls with patients".
But one company was working with this technology years before Amazon arrived on the scene: Medal, a healthcare startup dedicated to using ML to refine and process medical data.
"When I was training for my medical degree in an emergency room, we started seeing people coming in without their medical records, and one patient in particular ended up in a coma as a result of that," explained Lonnie Rae, co-founder and CEO of Medal. "Around this time Uber and Lyft had launched and I remember specifically thinking about how easy it was to gain access to a car, yet I couldn't get hold of the medical information that I needed to treat my patients.
"We were expected to meet a person and write page 3,001 of their medical record without access to or an easy ability to use the prior 3,000 pages of this person's life and history."
It was around this time that Rae had an accident herself, away from home in another city. "I ended up pinned under a bus with a broken pelvis, among other injuries. When I transferred back home to recover, I ended up with $10,000 bill in repeat care and testing because I was injured away from home and my medical record didn't come with me."
During her two-month recovery she spent her time working out exactly how big of a problem lack of data sharing was. "Even if I was an incredible doctor and able to save the life of every person I touched throughout my whole career I would never be able to help as many people as I would if I focused on the inoperability," she said. "We were spending exorbitant amounts of money collecting the same record over and over again. I started Medal in response when I realized it was the biggest problem I would ever see in my career and the biggest thing I could do to help patients."
So, what does the tech colossus' arrival in this sector mean for medical data sharing? "Amazon entering any space means that it brings with it incredible validation for the market and the player. We believe this will draw more attention to the problem and ultimately create better outcomes for patients and health systems."
Like Amazon, one of its key components is its ability to refine any form of text, but Rae assured us Medal is much further ahead in this field. "We started three years ago so Medal's technology is very, very advanced, much more than other things on the market. And Amazon has built a platform for users, Medal has built a platform for the end users."
Rae was reluctant to talk too much about Medal's secrets before they fully launch at the beginning of next year, but she did tell us that they are "using ML in multiple places, it's not just the text refinement. It's a piece of a broader platform where we are performing exceptionally well".
And how does she predict data and healthcare come together more fluidly in the future? "The industry as a whole will evolve over time, right now we're interested in breaking down the barriers so that all physicians can easily gain access to the critical data that can save lives."
Over two millennials ago, the father of modern medicine Hippocrates stated: "It is better to know the patient who has the disease than the disease the patient has." With advanced sharing of patient data, clinicians will be able to do exactly that and many, many lives stand to be saved as a result.