Earlier in May, we attended the And& Summit, a 4-day gathering on health, tech and creativity in Leuven (Belgium). As part of the festival we had the chance to visit Health House, an exhibition space displaying various tech innovations that will change shape the future of healthcare within the next ten years. Opened in March 2018, Health House is an initiative that gathers 5 partner organisations among which the University KU Leuven and IMEC, the the largest independent European research center in nano-electronics and digital technologies.
We had a conversation with Isabelle Francois, Managing Director of Health House, about the latest innovations in healthcare technologies, ethic, privacy, prevention and body awareness.
Author: Inès Péborde
Image: Courtesy of Health House
Ines Peborde: VR is a growing trend in the design world. On Healing Places, we made few articles on some VR games that could help patients dealing with anxiety and trauma. Could you present us some current pioneer VR projects and how do they transform users's experiences?
Isabelle Francois : Applications of VR in this field is moving step by step. It will take time to fully integrate VR as part of common health practice. At the moment there are VR programs being developed to reduce loneliness, especially for elderly people. In 10 years from now it would probably not be unusual to see elderly people maintaining contact with their children or grandchildren using VR technology. There, technology is complementing human interaction but I don’t think that VR could replace entirely replace social contact.
Another aspect of VR is that it create distraction and therefore can be used to help patients dealing with pain. There are already studies of MRI scans that show that people with VR goggles experience less pain than those who are not using those devices. Researchers in Leuven are now working on a pain treatment VR program that would include smell, sound to alleviate the pain.
Health House is also involved in a project called KneeVR which uses VR as a key element of physical rehabilitation process. The gaming experience becomes a to help patient going through this long and tedious path.
Video: Courtesy of PreviewLabs
I.P: Could you tell us more about healthcare wearable?
I.F: Sensor-based wearables are developed for health prevention, by monitoring health factors in real time and detecting the appearance of some diseases. There is for example the Mexican biosensor company Hygia that has developed a bra that can detect early signs of breast cancer, using thermal and tactile sensors.
IMEC has created the chill band prototype, which monitors the level of stress through heart rate, skin conductance (sweat) and skin temperature. Throughout the day, the user can use the bracelet to measure those changes and connect it to their phone.
There is also the prototype of an helmet, made especially for elderly people, that can protect the head in case the person falls and notify caretakers in case the person falls. Another example is headband that can send in real time a signal when the person has a seizure.
Images: Courtesy of IMEC
I.P: The first storyline of the exhibition presents fascinating advances in pre-natale health. What is being done at the moment?
I.F: There are in development tattoos made out of a biodegradable ink or the bio stamp, which uses sensors as a band-aid, are being developed for in depth pregnancy monitoring.
Another aspect of tech innovation in this field is genetic modification. You can analyse the foetus’ DNA, through a process called foetal biopsy by using the mother’s blood. What is already done in Belgium is non invasive prenatal testing to prevent down syndrome (rather than ecography). You can also look at other defect by analysing the foetus genome. Off course there is the ethical aspect that comes into play as some people are even talking about the ‘makeable’ or ‘designed baby’.
This is always a danger with new technologies. They can be developed with the best interest in mind, in this case providing an early diagnosis that can help parents to prepare for this. But on the other hand it can also be used for more controversial purposes, as for instance mutations of the DNA.
Images: Courtesy of Health House
I.P: The ethics is a major question when it comes to technologies and how they can impact our everyday life and societies’ identities. In the future we can imagine that more and more medical information will be collected by devices, apps, wearables and stored in cloud systems. Are tech companies and research centres developing their own ethic code or is there a national or international framework to guide those type of research?
I.F: Indeed, with those programs the data is preserved in the cloud, which raises questions about safety.
How do we protect the data that is in the cloud, who gets access to it? The persons who are granted access, what are they allowed to do with the data? Who owns the data?
There must be a system in which each patient can decide what can be done with their data.
There is a lot of data out there. As more and more sensors will be soon out there, the legislation will need to be updated. It’s an evolving process. The ethical aspect is a comment that we hear often from visitors. In Leuven, there are already groups of professors, including psychologists who are investigating those questions
I.P: If the data can be collected from directly from the patient, can we imagine algorithms replacing doctors in medical diagnosis and follow-up with the patient?
I.F: There is a big difference between informative apps (which tell you your blood pressure) and an app that would gives you a diagnosis and tell you what to do for your treatment. The difference lies in accountability of the technological tool, especially for insurance. The company would be therefore accountable in case of misdiagnosis and tech companies don’t want to be accountable for mistakes in the app algorithm. So I think it won’t be possible to rule out the general practitioner. Maybe you can reduce the amount of time for consultations, but not completely replace the human expertise and human interaction.