Dr. Anthony Tang envisions a not-so-distant future where sensors, voice recognition, cloud-computing and data analytics are a routine part of the health-care experience.
“The grand vision is that we can make a diagnosis, follow a patient’s progress and allow management to occur wherever they are,” said Tang. “This is about empowering patients in their own health care.”
As the scientific director and CEO of the Cardiac Arrhythmia Network of Canada (CANet) at Western University, Tang is focused on innovative solutions to help patients manage their complex medical conditions.
Collaborating with investigators across the country, CANet is leading the expansion, testing and clinical integration of a digital health platform called VIRTUES (virtual integrated reliable transformative user-driven e-health system).
VIRTUES delivers efficient, effective and accessible health care, on-demand and tailored to the specific needs of each patient. It provides a patient-owned, cloud-based solution that integrates symptoms, remote monitoring data, and historic health data. These data are then translated into personalized recommendations for the management of complex conditions.
“This is the future of health care and what we have developed is uniquely addressing the patient’s needs,” said Tang. “We have the potential to be an international leader in this field.”
CANet investigators first developed the VIRTUES platform for patients with implantable pacemakers or defibrillators to remotely monitor the devices and collect up-to-date patient information. This enabled them to advise patients on how the device was performing and if follow-up care was needed.
“The volume of patients with pacemakers in Canada is very big, and there are hidden costs associated with travel and time off work to see specialists,” said Tang. “If we can do things remotely, we avoid about 80 per cent of unnecessary visits. We’re also able to reassure patients much quicker, and if there are problems, we can tweak things remotely or ask the patient to come in.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the CANet team offered the technology to help monitor patients diagnosed with the virus as they isolated at home.
Partnering with several health units across Ontario, patients were given a pulse oximeter and access to the VIRTUES platform to track their blood oxygen levels and other vitals. The platform prompted patients twice per day to enter the required information.
“We aren’t able to follow-up with every patient through the VIRTUES platform every single day, but VIRTUES allows us to continue monitoring patients and making sure they are recovering,” said Dr. Marko Mrkobrada, a professor at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and general internist at London Health Sciences Centre, who helped develop the hospital’s virtual care model for COVID-19 patients.
“COVID has shown us the possibilities for this type of virtual care – that it can play a role in making health care more efficient and accessible,” said Mrkobrada.
One of the most innovative aspects of VIRTUES is the involvement of patients, who co-developed the concept and continue to contribute to the research.
“There are big companies in the digital health space, but it’s often more about the needs of clinics and care providers, not the patients,” said Tang. “We took the opposite approach and asked about the needs of the patients as a primary objective.”
By entering symptoms and vitals into the VIRTUES sytem, patients are also participating in their own care.
The CANet team is now enhancing the platform to support the management of patients with atrial fibrillation, heart failure or coronary artery disease after a heart attack. Investigators are also working on voice recognition to analyze coughs, identify stress or depression, and recognize breathing patterns.
“Technology like VIRTUES is not just an interesting tool, it’s an inevitable evolution of our health-care system,” said Mrkobrada. “There is a huge opportunity for CANet and Western in leading this and collaborating nationally. There is great possibility moving forward.”