Keeping digital healthcare services people-centric

Founded in 2015, AIME or Artificial Intelligence in Medical Epidemiology, is a startup which specializes in big data analytics and machine learning to predict the location and time of infectious disease outbreaks in real time. 

Ahead of the Malaysia Digital Health Summit, HIMSS APAC’s first ever virtual summit happening from 7-8 July 2020, Dr Helmi Zakariah, Chief Executive Officer of AIME, shared with Healthcare IT News his thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on digital health in Malaysia and why it is important to keep digital healthcare services people-centric. 

Could you tell us more about your role as CEO of AIME and your involvement in the Selangor state COVID-19 task force?

I trained professionally as a medical doctor and public health practitioner, and worked with the Ministry of Health until 2017. Since then, I’ve been running my venture in Digital Epidemiology through AIME and AI4Good, and is on the panel for WHO Working Group of AI Application in Outbreak since 2019. When COVID-19 reached Malaysia, I was invited by the Selangor state government to join their task force for the pandemic.

Within the premise of Selangor Task Force for COVID-19 (STFC), I led the Digital Epidemiology and Data Analytics portfolio – in which we deliver 2 platforms: ACURA – the population & location risk-ranking analytics platform for COVID-19, and SELANGKAH (lit. “One Step”) – a digital contact tracing initiative leveraging on QR technology.

In your experience, what roles do you see digital technologies play in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in Malaysia? How has the pandemic impacted digital health developments in the country?

In 2 ways: 

  • Rapid surveillance system development and adoption of contact tracing capability – previously thought impossible / run the risk of low uptake by the population.
  • The “lockdown” contributed to onboarding of telemedicine, out of need pressure to continue regular clinical service (for e.g. for non-communicable diseases) – previously obstructed by various regulation. The silver lining in all this chaos is that the pandemic create an impetus to speed up the adoption of telemedicine, both on the provider and client sides.

Beyond the pandemic, what are some the changes you hope to see in terms of digital health adoption and developments in Malaysia?

There are lessons to be learnt within this pandemic. The digital innovation on healthcare services must always be people-centric. By people it means both providers and clients. When service / options were offered to the public for adoption in this pandemic– there’s a rapid uptake. It proves that beyond government and healthcare providers, the public is another estate that we frequently left behind in our narrative / discussion of development. 

SELANGKAH for example was not designed from the mere perspective of Contact Tracing for healthcare workers, but also from the needs of Business Entity to continue to remain in operation safely, in the time of pandemics.

You are also a thought leader/speaker in the field of international public health. The global COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of taking an international and coordinated approach to public health. How do you think governments/health ministries around the world can take a more coordinated approach towards international public health?

Coordination is a vague word without a coordinator. In the time of pandemic – like any other crisis – a global central agency must be recognized and their role upheld in the interest of public health. The UN institution like WHO might not be perfect – but it’s our best available avenue. Governments should continue to support the coordinating role of WHO – especially in the time of crisis.

The pandemic also spurs and sparks various innovation across the world – to solve a common problem. Making innovation blueprint & anonymized data publicly available for scrutiny, and replication research is necessary to validate and to scale it. More often than not, the custodian of health data is the Health Ministries. More often than not too, it has a limited expertise in handling large data management and cross-sectoral and cross-border sharing, despite the clear benefit of doing so. 

This pandemic prove to us that coordinated scientific works can only be done with open data platform – and scientist should be at the forefront to champion a more coordinated approach towards international public health. An Open Data platform will prove more useful now rather than resolutions after resolutions in the World Health Assembly of WHO – without discounting the latter’s importance.

Which technologies and trends do you foresee will have the greatest impact on the developments of population and public health in the next 3-5 years?

Population preventive health analytics using multitude of various non-health data points. It’s no surprise and correlation after correlation in population health study has indicate the role of Social Determinants of Health (SDOH). 

It is unfortunate that the mainstream innovation and investment of technology in health caters too much on the downstream – diagnostics, service delivery, and personalized treatment ; leaving the more upstream portion – physical living environment, air pollution, supply chain of nutritious food – left untouched. Do you know healthcare services only account to 20% of impact on a person health status? 

The technologies? Big Data Analytics and Machine Learning. The reason is simple – because all of these SDOHs from various sectors are so unstructured, and to find patterns within it – is almost impossible using conservative methods.

Dr Zakariah is a speaker at the opening keynote titled ‘Leveraging Digital Health in Times of COVID-19 and Beyond’ happening from 3pm-4pm (GMT +8) on 7 July at the upcoming HIMSS APAC Malaysia Digital Health Summit. Registration (click here) is open till Friday, 3 July at 11:59pm (+8 GMT), so don’t miss out!

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