One out of every seven British Columbians will develop some form of skin cancer over his or her lifetime, according to the BC Cancer Agency.
Fortunately, it’s one of the more curable forms of cancer and can be detected early because, unlike other forms of cancer, early warning signs show up right in the bathroom mirror in the form of an odd-shaped mole or skin scales.
Unfortunately, anyone in B.C. who goes to a family doctor to see about a worrisome mole may be mortified to learn it can take up to six months to get an appointment with a dermatologist, get a biopsy and then get the test results back.
“In that six-month period, your survival can go from 85% – i.e. very treatable – to 15% – seriously ill,” said Sue Paish, the former CEO of LifeLabs and the current CEO of Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster, based in B.C.
A big part of the problem in B.C. is simply a lack of dermatologists. Collapsing the current diagnosis timeframe to a couple of weeks using digital technology is just one of the projects the supercluster has been working on in the area of health care.
The supercluster has pulled together BC Cancer, Providence Health Care and a number of digital health companies – Careteam Technologies Inc., Change Healthcare (Nasdaq:CHNG) and MetaOptima Technology Inc. – to develop technology that will allow a person to take a photo of a lesion or mole with a smartphone and send it to his or her family doctor, who can then forward it to a dermatologist.
The new Dermatology Point-of-Care Intelligent Network uses artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and a database of millions of images of known skin cancers to help medical professionals quickly determine whether the mole or lesion in question is likely melanoma or just an age spot.
“We’re taking that down to a week, because no one should wait 36 weeks to know ‘yes or no’ that you have cancer, and then in those 36 weeks … that cancer can go from one stage to the next,” said Alexandra Greenhill, founder and CEO of Careteam.
A former associate CEO of the British Columbia Medical Association, Greenhill formed Careteam out of frustration.
What frustrated her was seeing all kinds of innovations in health care and digital technology developing without much coordination. So she developed a virtual collaboration platform that allows plans of action to be created around complex and chronic diseases.
“We’ve known what needs to happen for a long time, but the missing link was the lack of software to accomplish it,” Greenhill said. “So I switched hats and started developing the kind of software that would fulfil what clinicians, patients and administrators have long known is needed, which is to co-ordinate care across all of the different stakeholders who are involved. Careteam is intended to be the coordinator.”
The power of the digital supercluster is its funding and its ability to pull together numerous technology companies, researchers, agencies and governments to solve problems – and there are a lot of problems in health care to fix, especially during a pandemic.
When it comes to health care in Canada and B.C., the numbers are on a worrisome trajectory. According to a presentation on the provincial government’s draft Digital Health Strategy:
•$0.46 of every tax dollar in B.C. goes to health care – $19 billion annually;
•10% of the population consumes 63% of the health care budget;
•Per-person spending on health care in Canada is up 3.2% since 2017 and up 2.8% in B.C.; and
•15% of the B.C. population is over 65, and that number expected to double by 2040.
“That’s completely unsustainable, especially when you think about the aging population,” Paish said, adding that digital technology has huge potential to improve chronic and complex disease diagnosis, management and treatment, while reducing costs.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has amplified shortcomings in the health-care system, including backlogs and delays in surgeries, treatment and testing. But it has also demonstrated how effective and agile some emerging digital technologies can be in fixing some of those problems.
When the pandemic hit, the digital supercluster had just finished working with Clarius Mobile Health – a B.C. company that specializes in medical imaging – and a variety of partners to develop and deploy a handheld ultrasound device that is particularly useful in obstetrics in rural and First Nations communities that don’t have access to hospital diagnostics equipment.
The developers realized they had something that could easily and quickly pivot for COVID-19. Since the coronavirus typically infects the lungs, diagnostics are needed to check patients for lung inflammation.
“Within the space literally of weeks, they adapted the ultrasound for obstetrics so that the handheld sensors can be used to detect lung abnormalities,” Paish explained. “When you’re using digital technologies, it’s resilient, it’s agile and you can adapt them to suit a condition.”
Even before the supercluster was formed, B.C. tech companies had been developing a range of innovations to address chronic and complex diseases.
Ayogo Health Inc. and the Digital Health Circle have created digital tools to help patients diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. A Vancouver company called Bio Conscious Technology Inc. has developed an app and AI platform that helps people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes better manage their disease.
The app, called Diabits, applies machine learning to a user’s personal physiology to predict where a user’s glucose levels may be 60 minutes ahead of time.
It can be paired with continuous glucose monitoring patches and other wearables – like Fitbit products – to analyze real-time data and provide better predictability of blood sugar levels. The Bio Conscious platform, Endobits, uses machine learning to generate a personal profile that begins to understand a person’s particular metabolism and make more precise predictions about blood sugar levels.
“Now what we give a Type 1 diabetic, other than real-time data, is where their glucose is going to go an hour before it gets there,” said Bio Conscious CEO Amir Hayeri. “So before you start eating, we know you’ll be eating.
“We show them the foresight so they avoid the crash and they avoid staying high for too long throughout the day.”
Currently there have been about 12,000 downloads of the Diabits app, with many of them in the U.S. and U.K. •