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Unlocking the potential of digital health

Dr Shibeshih Belachew, head of science, Biogen Digital Health | Via Biogen

Over the past few decades, the health care sector has witnessed groundbreaking digital advancements at all stages of patient care, from R&D to diagnosis and treatment, triggering a radical shift in the way we think of and deliver health care. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly accelerated this process, leading to the acknowledgement that digital solutions are essential for patients and health care systems.

Dr Shibeshih Belachew, head of science at Biogen Digital Health,part of Biogen, the biotech company pioneering breakthroughs in neuroscience for over 40 years, explores how bringing together biology and technology can improve our understanding of neurological diseases. Digital health has immense potential to enable more prevention-focused, personalized care and deepen our understanding of diseases to improve care for people living with neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. 

The health care industry overall is transforming with the direct and indirect effect of technological innovation

Digital technologies are transforming Europe’s health sector and it is essential to align and advance policies to unlock transformative digital innovation in the health care space.

Q: What are the key trends in digital health?

A: The health care industry overall is transforming with the direct and indirect effect of technological innovation. For example, we are witnessing a rise in health care that relates to people’s lives, with increased personalization, customer-orientation, and data-driven, mobile and remote care. We also see that the health care ecosystem overall is reshaping, in the context of global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and that non-traditional entrants including tech players are emerging and revolutionizing health care, from R&D to patient experience. Third, we are experiencing unprecedented breakthroughs in computational automation and device technology, for example, with machine learning and artificial neural networks, virtual reality solutions and digital therapeutics, which are changing the face of modern health care.

Q: What can you tell us about evolution of digital technologies — particularly related to neuroscience?

A: Neuroscience is a field of immense unmet medical need, and an area in which Biogen has been pioneering breakthroughs for over 40 years. Neurological diseases are highly complex, devastating and there are significant challenges in how they are understood, with respect to the underpinnings of their paramount heterogeneity. This is due in part to the structural and functional complexity of the human central nervous system. It is also due to the limitations of how, as a society, we currently study, explore and monitor the brain and neurological diseases, by relying largely on subjective and human observation-based information. Let us take Parkinson’s disease as one example. Because signs and symptoms for this degenerative nervous system disorder often develop slowly, it can be difficult for physicians to pick up disease progression at an early stage. Typically, neurologists will ask patients to perform motor tasks and walk across their office to observe symptoms of subtle motion slowness or gait difficulties, which hardly provides enough data to be definitive. 

Neurologists can capture months’ worth of physiological and behavioral data in minutes

However, by using quantifiable digital sensor-derived data (also known as digital biomarkers), neurologists can capture months’ worth of physiological and behavioral data in minutes, highlighting how an individual’s gait can develop over time. When combined with AI-enabled pattern detection, neurologists can gain access to a wide array of clinical patient insights — potentially allowing them to spot signs of Parkinson’s disease at an earlier stage.   

 Q: What is the role of policymakers in unlocking the power of digital health?

A: True innovation in digital health requires robust evidence generation, often involving large-scale, multi-country, multi-language and sometimes multi-device clinical trials. Biogen believes that optimizing the use and applicability of these digital tools will require an agile, progressive regulatory framework for digital health technologies which may be enabled through the establishment of collaborative models and accompanied by the development of joint guidance by medicine and medical device regulators. Indeed, increasing harmonization of medical device requirements for digital health technologies is essential across different member countries to minimize ambiguity and inconsistency for digital health research. Policymakers and regulators need to ensure that regulatory frameworks are standardized and future looking.

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