Digital Medicine: From Possibility to Reality
Author: Sarah Yunes
Editors: Rajiv P. Shrestha and Jae Yang
As technology advances rapidly, the use of devices to measure a variety of health-related metrics has dramatically increased. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the expansion of wearable devices. With everything from smart watches and wearable EKG monitors, so-called “digital health” products are everywhere. This leads to a lot of confusion about the emerging discipline of digital medicine and what qualifies a device to be included in that category. To help encourage discussion in digital medicine, Boston QSP hosted the inaugural event of our “Innovation in Biopharma and Digital Health” event series on April 10. Our speaker was Dr. Peter Bergethon, the Vice President and Head of Digital & Quantitative Medicine (DQM) at Biogen with the goal of providing a framework for digital medicine and how it should be approached. His talk was titled Digital Medicine: Hype or Hope.
Dr. Peter Bergethon during his talk.
Digital medicine is a reflection of how technology is becoming more integrated into everyone’s daily lives. Digital medicine attempts to harness these smart technologies to improve medical outcomes for patients. However, as the field has grown, there has been increased pressure to set standards. This led to the establishment of the DiME (Digital Medicine) Society, which is set to launch sometime spring 2019 and Dr. Bergethon is a part of this great initiative. According to the DiME Society, digital medicine is “concerned with the use of technologies as tools for measurement, and intervention in the service of human health” and “focuses on evidence-generation to support the use of these technologies”.
On a broader level, digital medicine includes measuring a time series of relevant patient metrics and capturing the context, or the normal lives, of the patients. Additionally, the portability of such technologies allows for increased access of patients to medical grade information, particularly in rural areas that traditionally have less access to the healthcare system. Another advantage to applying medicine to digital devices is that it would likely have a quicker regulatory approval process than drugs, as the digital devices used for this technology are typically outside of the body and therefore would not have biological safety concerns.
Dr. Bergethon talking to guests at the mixer
The hope of the digital medicine field is that this increase in time and context information would improve doctors’ abilities to diagnose and, importantly, treat patients. This requires establishing both sensor systems and therapeutic systems. Sensors would have to be able to measure metrics that represent disease symptoms, measure progression and hopefully regression, determine how patients respond to treatment, and observe daily lives and activities of patients to determine the context of these metrics over time. Critically, the therapeutics system would need to be able to respond to and adjust to an external environment, pharmacological agents, internal body conditions (e.g., pH), and be able to activate support services when they are needed (e.g., calling emergency services).
After all, medical advancement is another form of systems modeling, where scientists and doctors measure and test emerging properties or symptoms of a disease and attempt to determine the mechanisms behind them. Gaining more information about the context of a situation where these emerging properties occur and on what timescale can provide valuable information about the mechanism of a disease and therefore how we can treat it. One area that will allow for the rapid expansion of what digital medicine can do is the IoT (Internet of Things) space. Using “smart home” technology to gain important diagnostic and therapeutic information could dramatically increase the available medical information. However, when asked if this type of technology could replace physicians entirely, Dr. Bergethon said that he thought that devices would only be able to do that when machines are able to replicate the human connection that doctors make with their patients.
In our interview, Dr. Bergethon talked about how digital medicine “has come into its own”, where there is now a “cogent view” of what the field is and where it is headed. A huge number of people have become interested in the field. Of note, that excitement does come with challenges. The rapid expansion of the field showed the need for establishing standard definitions and practices, which is why the DiME Society was created. There are enough people now that are “seriously engaging the problem” to establish what this emerging discipline entails. Over the next few years, Dr. Bergethon expects an increased use of digital medicine technologies by physicians, both in their offices and at the patients’ home. Eventually, by having useful conversations with regulatory bodies to determine how to use this technology effectively, digital medicine could reduce the size and length of clinical trials, making drug development faster and cheaper. In his free time, Dr. Bergethon is an avid scuba diver and a geology-enthusiast. He enjoys taking trips to Wyoming, spending time with his wife and their two dogs, and reading from his 6,000 book library.
Mahdiar Sadeghi (left), Dr. Bergethon (center), and Sarah Yunes (right) during the interview
Dr. Bergethon’s talk was followed by a mixer event where community members discussed and socialized over food and drinks. Check out the April Event: The Photo Blog for more details and highlights.
We would like to thank Biogen for sponsoring the event and the CIC for sponsoring the venue.
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