Category: International

The case for healthcare cooperation with Cuba

published date
October 20th, 2016 by

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I learned quite a bit from a brief Perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine (The United States and Cuba –Turning Enemies into Partners for Health).

A June Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Cuban Ministry of Public Health lays out a wide variety of areas for cooperation, including infection diseases like Zika, plus cancer and chronic conditions.

Thanks to the embargo, products developed in Cuba aren’t available in the US because they are not allowed into the FDA approval process. As a result, certain drugs like Heberprot-P, to reduce amputation risk for diabetic foot ulcers, aren’t available in the US even though they are on the market in many other countries.

We don’t need to copy the Cuban health system, but there are some lessons to be learned from Cuba’s experience with population health, community-based programs, disease control, and chronic care management.

It isn’t possible to fully implement the MoU now, because the embargo remains in place and only Congress can lift it. If Democrats take control of Congress, that could happen soon. If not, the author argues that the President has the authority to allow Cuban products into the US regulatory process just like products from any other country. He’d also like to see the President allow US students to attend medical school in Cuba, where some have been offered scholarships.

These all sound like good ideas to me and I hope they are implemented.

Image courtesy of taesmileland at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Canada is looking better and better

published date
May 23rd, 2016 by
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O Canada!

In almost every election cycle people talk about moving to Canada if a presidential candidate they despise takes office. In practice few make the move. Things could be a little different this time around if a certain nationalist strongman comes to power.

There’s something else to fear this year: the Zika virus. According to NIH director Tony Fauci, mosquitoes with Zika are likely to arrive in the US mainland within the next month or two. One species will be all over the South, another will come up the East Coast as far as New England. Already, close to 300 pregnant women in the US are infected.

Congress is dithering with the President’s request for funds to combat Zika’s spread and is toying with the idea of canceling Ebola funds to partially support the Zika fight. It’s pretty irresponsible.

In the past I would have assumed that Congress would get it’s act together and do the right thing. But after seeing some members unconcerned about preventing a default I no longer take good intentions and common sense for granted.

Zika is serious and its spread could have a big impact on economic growth. In El Salvador, the government has advised women not to get pregnant for the next two years, lest they give birth to babies with severe birth defects. Can you imagine the impact such an advisory would have in the US?

Image courtesy of Vlado at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

The false link between mental illness and gun violence

published date
May 19th, 2016 by

It would be nice if we could eliminate mass shootings by improving the mental health system, coaxing (or forcing) potential shooters into treatment before they have a chance to wreak havoc.  As the Washington Post (Most mass shooters aren’t mentally ill. So why push better treatment as the answer?) reports:

“It would be ridiculous to hope that doing something about the mental-health system will stop these mass murders,” said Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and author of “The Anatomy of Evil,” which examines the personalities of brutal killers. “It’s really folly.”

This seems pretty obvious, and yet Republican and Democratic leaders, along with the general public and the media seem to think mental illness is the root cause of shooting sprees and that improving the mental health system can fix the problem.

After mass shootings, reporters often jump quickly to mental illness as the cause. Remember after the Sandy Hook shooting when there was speculation that the shooter’s Asperger’s diagnosis was to blame?

Asperger’s? Are you kidding me?

The danger of our fixation on mental illness as the root cause of violence is that we end up stigmatizing people with mental illness –and developmental disorders– while ignoring more direct causes of gun violence, such as ready access to guns.

Mass shootings are rare outside the US. Is there someone who can tell me with a straight face that the difference is due to better mental health systems abroad?

Meanwhile, Australia has seen a major decrease in gun violence over the past 20 years since adopting strong gun control after a mass murder. That seems like a more evidence and logic based response than what we’ve tried here.

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

 

Listen app: ResApp diagnoses respiratory ailments

published date
April 28th, 2016 by

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I’m intrigued by an Australian company, ResApp that has developed a smartphone app to diagnose respiratory diseases by analyzing the sound signatures of coughs. The company has just completed an oversubscribed fundraising round, so I guess I’m not the only one who finds it interesting.

I interviewed the CEO, Dr. Tony Keating via email, and his answers are below. Meanwhile, check out the demo for their consumer-facing product.
[vimeo 140138524 w=640 h=360]

What is ResApp? from ResApp Health on Vimeo.

Q1. What unmet need does ResApp serve? How big is the need?

ResApp is developing digital health solutions for the diagnosis and management of respiratory disease (e.g. pneumonia, bronchiolitis, asthma, COPD). We estimate that every year more than 700 million doctor visits result in the diagnosis of a respiratory disease within the OECD, in the US the number is 125 million visits. Pneumonia in particular costs the US hospital system $10.5 billion annually. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 1 million children die of pneumonia in the developing world every year, with a large portion attributed to the lack of availability of a low cost diagnostic tool. 

Current diagnosis of these disease is costly and time consuming (consider that an x-ray for pneumonia diagnosis in the US costs more than $200 and can take up to an hour in an emergency department), and there are also many areas where current diagnostic tools are unavailable. Our initial focus is to provide an accurate remote diagnostic capability to telehealth where even the stethoscope is not available to physicians. 

Q2. How does the system work?

ResApp’s technology is based on the premise that cough and breathing sounds carry vital information on the state of the respiratory tract. We use machine learning algorithms that analyze the sound of a patient’s cough. Our algorithms are able to match signatures that are within a patient’s cough with a disease diagnosis. An analogy might be how speech recognition algorithms match speech to text, or how Shazam’s algorithms look for signatures in music to identify the artist and title. 

Q3. Who came up with the idea? How?

The technology was developed by Dr Udantha Abeyratne and his team at The University of Queensland. Dr Abeyratne and his team have been engaged in the R&D of the technology since 2009. They were initially funded by a grant from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to investigate if mobile phones could be used to diagnose pneumonia in the developing world. The initial idea was to take the latest advances in speech recognition technology and couple them with physicians’ in-depth knowledge of cough and breathing sounds to develop a diagnostic test that could be delivered at low cost to patients in the developing world. 

Q4. You started as a telehealth app but are now looking to serve physicians for in-person visits, such as in the emergency room. Why?

Our focus remains on providing a remote diagnostic test to be used alongside a telehealth consultation. However we have seen great interest from physicians for use in in-person visits, such as in the ER. The potential of our technology to provide an instant and highly accurate differential diagnosis of respiratory disease is seen as a way to greatly improve the diagnosis and treatment of their patients. In addition, healthcare payers could potentially realize significant cost savings versus traditional diagnostic tests (such as chest x-ray). 

Q5. The app doesn’t require any additional hardware. Is a smartphone really good enough to serve as a medical device?

Our clinical study, run out of two major Australian hospitals, has demonstrated very high levels of accuracy (both sensitivity and specificity) in diagnosis from recordings taken using the microphone on the smartphone. We are simply using the smartphone as an efficient platform for delivering a clinical-quality medical diagnostic device. The FDA has approved over 100 mobile medical apps, including a number that diagnose a disease. 

Q6. Your initial focus is on diagnostics. Do you also plan to offer tools for ongoing management? 

Yes, our recent fundraising allows us to accelerate our plans to develop tools for ongoing management of the chronic respiratory diseases asthma and COPD. We see an opportunity to potentially measure the severity of these conditions on a more regular basis than what is done today. We also see the opportunity to deliver these management tools to all smartphone users who suffer from these conditions, without the need to purchase additional hardware (or perhaps also just as importantly, without the need to carry a second device). 

Q7. What geographic markets are you serving? Are you worried you are spreading yourself to thin?

Our focus is the US telehealth market, although our recent funding extends our US market into the in-person use by a physician. In both of these instances, we are still providing the diagnostic result to the physician, not directly to the patient, so our clinical studies and FDA submissions are essentially unchanged. We have recently seen growth in telehealth, in particular in Europe and Australia and will be working through the regulatory process in those regions in parallel to the US regulatory process.

Q8. What’s to prevent someone else from copying what you are doing?

The university has filed a patent application (which ResApp has a worldwide exclusive license to) describing the method and apparatus of respiratory disease diagnosis using sound. The machine learning algorithms that we use also require a significant amount of high quality clinical data, which we have generated from our multiple clinical studies. 

Q9. Anything else to add?

ResApp’s technology, originally developed by a world-class team at one of the world’s leading universities, provides an opportunity to deliver a clinical-quality medical diagnostic test for respiratory disease to everybody who has a smartphone in their pocket. While we’ve talked a lot about the opportunities in the US, Europe and Australia, we must remember that there are also billions of people in the developing world who do not have access to quality healthcare. We have recently partnered with a leading global humanitarian organization to help bring a high accuracy, low cost diagnostic test for pneumonia to those people and to try to reduce the number of children who die from pneumonia and other respiratory diseases every year in the developing world. 

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

How immigrants help health reform succeed

published date
July 30th, 2015 by

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Medicare turns 50 today, which has provided an opportunity for all manner of retrospectives and speculation about what the future holds. The Partnership for a New American Economy is publicizing one of my favorite arguments: that immigrants are a key reason that Medicare is still solvent.

Their 2014 study (Staying Covered: How Immigrants Have Prolonged the Solvency of One of Medicare’s Key Trust Funds and Subsidized Care for U.S. Seniors) concludes:

  • Immigrants are subsidizing Medicare’s core trust fund
  • Immigrants played a critical role subsidizing Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund during the recent recession
  • Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund would be nearing insolvency if not for the contributions of immigrants in recent years

Bottom line: immigrants contributed $182 billion more to the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund between 1996 and 2011 than they received in benefits. Meanwhile, US-born citizens sucked out $69 billion more than they paid in.

But the argument for open integration goes far beyond the Medicare story. As I wrote back in 2011 (We need a liberal immigration policy to support health care reform)

  1. Immigrants innovate and create economic growth. This growth is how the country gets wealthier and better able to support health care expenses without raising tax rates
  2. Immigrants can use their intellectual capital and training –whether acquired abroad or here– to fill healthcare jobs such as primary care physician, pharmacist, nurse that would otherwise go unfilled

We have very stupidly made the US less welcoming to immigrants at the same time that talented people have more opportunities in their birth countries and while other countries have made it easier for educated immigrants to thrive. I partly blame the current state of affairs on the post-9/11 mentality. We’ll pay for it in the long run in healthcare and in the economy at large.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.