Technology supports new research aimed at easing healthcare’s challenges

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The healthcare industry is experiencing fundamental transformation… and as  tumultuous as the current environment is, it is expected to become even more complex over the next several years.

Data overload is a problem as well as a potential problem solver.  New medical devices, the increased use of sensors, and patient monitoring systems are contributing to an increase in data.  Medical information is doubling every five years; and data managed by hospitals and ambulatory providers is expected to quadruple from 2010 to 2015.  Harnessing that data, consolidating, integrating and transforming it into meaningful information represents an important tool healthcare practitioners and researchers can use as they struggle with how to offer better care to more people at less cost.

Making sure that data becomes the problem solver is one of the goals of the new IBM Canada Research and Development Centre (CRDC).  The CRDC is part of a public/private collaboration between IBM, the governments of Canada and Ontario, and a consortium of seven universities: McMaster University, Queen’s University, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, University of Ottawa, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, and Western University.

The CRDC offers Canadian researchers an unprecedented opportunity to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges – by giving them access to an advanced high performance infrastructure that includes the most powerful supercomputer in Canada and some of the most advanced analytics software available today.

“To have this leg-up at this critical juncture is really exciting,” says Mark Daley, an associate professor of Computer Science and Biology at Western University. Daley is using the centre’s capabilities to further his research in neuroscience and modeling the brain. Other projects focus on software to certify the safety of insulin pumps, anonymizing confidential medical information to improve treatment, and giving ICU physicians in remote locations access to advanced decision support tools.

Here are details on some of those healthcare projects.

1) Real-time Graph Dynamics from Scanning Measurements
Led by Dr. Mark Daley, Associate Professor, Computer Science and Biology; Principal Investigator, Brain and Mind Institute, Western University

Millions of people in Canada are affected by neurological disorders, and the impact of brain disorders on the economy is in the billions. Daley’s research brings together scientists from neuroimaging, neuroscience and high-performance computing.

By studying dynamic networks in realtime, faster, more accurate diagnoses, better outcomes, and optimal use of expensive scanner time can be achieved. Dynamically adapted brain scanning allows the test to be stopped, tuned and adjusted while it is underway. Neural functional connectivity networks have been shown to be diagnostic indicators for several brain disorders, including autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and ADHD.

2) Certification of Safety and Security in Software-Intensive Medical Devices
Led by Dr. Alan Wassyng, Associate Professor, Department of Computing and Software, McMaster University and Director, McMaster Centre for Software Certification

Thousands of deaths involving infusion pumps are reported in North
America every year. As with most medical devices and health information
systems, concerns related to safety and reliability are of paramount importance. With insulin infusion pumps now programmable through wireless connections, a major security risk exists.

Wassyng’s team is focused on developing methods for building safety and security into the software of insulin pumps. The team is working in collaboration with the FDA to identify and predict the ways in which an insulin pump may overdose or underdose a user, and then mitigating those risks.

3) Privacy and Security in Personal Health Information
Led by Dr. Stan Matwin, Distinguished University Professor, EECS, University of Ottawa

A multi-disciplinary University of Ottawa team (Computer Science, Management and Medicine) is working to develop new methods for private and secure handing of personal health information. While effective security methods exist, they focus mainly on protecting the two-party data exchanges from intrusion of third parties.

The University of Ottawa’s project will examine how to facilitate information flow between different players in the healthcare ecosystem. Health information must flow seamlessly across health professionals, providers and researchers. However, existing legal and regulatory frameworks impose constraints on how information can be shared, and emphasize data privacy as a patient right. Matwin’s goal is to develop and prototype a mechanism for sharing information while respecting privacy of the patient.

4) Online Health Analytics through Cloud Computing for Improved Critical Care

Led by Dr. Carolyn McGregor, Canada Research Chair in Health Informatics, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

Critical care units are one of the most costly areas within hospitals, accounting for 15.9 per cent of inpatient direct expenses but only 8.1 per cent of inpatient days. Due to Canada’s geography, many critically ill patients in rural and remote communities have minimal access to critical care services.

McGregor’s research proposes to establish a computing infrastructure for critical care online health informatics. The “Artemis Project” will use real-time analytics to analyze massive streams of physiological data from patients in remote areas to detect life-threatening conditions before they are apparent to the clinician. This builds on her ongoing work analyzing data generated from premature infants in a neonatal intensive care setting, which was first implemented at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto in August 2009.