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Tell Fred I was at TEDMED with Jed

How technology can enhance medicine was the topic at two major conferences in Israel this week
Medical devices in use in an Israeli hospital (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Medical devices in use in an Israeli hospital (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Yesterday was a very full day for me, pretty much totally devoted to technology and medicine. I was at two conferences, both of which discussed cutting-edge topics. Israel still comfortably holds the title of “startup nation”. I am personally humbled by the brilliance and the energy that I saw on display yesterday.

There is not enough room here to summarize all that I saw and heard, so I will focus on a few topics. One of the presentations yesterday morning was for a company called Telesofia. The problem that Telesofia deals with is the lack of full understanding, by patients, of instructions from a doctor. These could be critical home going instructions, after leaving the hospital, following a long admission. These could be important preparatory instructions before a series of medical tests that are needed to make a difficult diagnosis. Telesofia creates unique patient discharge instructions  and interactive educational videos which show a patient how to, for example, use a specific medical device. The potential of such a technology is tremendous. You can even know if the patient used the service, and if not, call the patient to ask why and to provide other help.

Now, I’m going to jump to the second part of the day, which was the TedMed Jerusalem conference. This conference is very important because it is also a formal recognition of Israel’s top place in the medical high-tech world. As noted by the conference’s hostess last night, this will be the first of yearly Israeli-based TedMeds. For all of the negativity aimed at Israel from across the world and for all of the threats facing us on a day-to-day basis, having TedMeds in Israel is a formal affirmation of the high-tech powerhouse that Israel has become. Even our worst enemies are using technology that somewhere, somehow was developed in Israel. I know – I am not sure if this should make me laugh or cry.

The first lecture was by a young woman whose curriculum vitae dwarfs mine [and I am twice her age]. She spoke of using advanced data analyses to do one of the things that big data has promised for a long time –  to identify health trends in order to predict disease outbreaks and to respond before the disease even manifests. One of the cases she discussed related to the outbreak of cholera which is, in some ways, more “evil” than Ebola. One can overcome the high fatality rates from cholera by simply providing clean water to drink. But, usually, by the time the outbreaks are identified, a great deal of the damage  has been done.

The presenter walked us through the process by which events, happening months before the outbreak, could be identified and then used to predict cholera’s presentation. This type of analysis, which can look back through even years of data, is made possible by collecting more and more information about any and all events ; the more the merrier. Although people generally know that the weather can affect a person’s well-being, few people realize that a drought months earlier can lead to a cholera epidemic. So information about weather, and clean water supply, can be mixed together with publich health information to find critical correlations.

Eventually, data scientists will be able to identify the specific trends for specific people that led to patient “X” having his heart attack on the specific day that it happened. It is very hard to convince people to change their lifestyle when you speak of risks that are many years away. But when you can point to a month and perhaps even a specific day on the calendar when certain health events will happen, you often succeed in getting the person’s attention.

Another speaker discussed a topic that I have previously reviewed, specifically, the question of whether a computer can be taught to function as a physician. The focus of this session was not to paint a futuristic world where humans no longer have a unique function. Instead the presenter discussed a far more attainable goal of having a computer provide a physician with information that could be of great assistance. And there will be cases where this information will be provided before the physician even realizes that he/she needs it.

The lecture on a technology to help cure cancer, was awe inspiring. This lecture was by Dr. Gal Markel, who represented a whole team from various departments in the Tel Aviv Univerity’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine. The presenter spoke of cancer cells’ amazing ability to camouflage themselves such that our bodies immune [/defense] system cannot “see” the cancer cells. The new technology could nullify this cellular cloaking device, and thus allow our body’s natural defenses to destroy these cancer cells.

The potential of such a technology is breathtaking. It could potentially be a cure for many cancers and could very well have minimal if any side effects. Such an approach is clearly superior to our present standard of effectively trying to poison the cancer cells without poisoning too many of our normal healthy cells. It is a painful truth that a number of cancer deaths are related to the treatment and not just the disease. But an immunologically based approach could literally be a magic pill against a major killer in our world. There is also no inherent reason why such a treatment could not be used in children or in older patients or in any patient with a long and complicated medical history.

At some point in the near future, the TedMed society will post the videos of the entire event online. For those who were not fortunate enough to attend, there will still be the amazing opportunity to personally hear these amazing lectures.

Back when I was around my bar mitzvah age, an older gentleman  who would regularly speak in the small synagogue I attended, spoke of how the winning hockey team from the Stanley Cup playoffs was greeted by thousands if not tens of thousands of fans that cheered their names and “partied into the night”. But when the developer of the polio vaccine attended a conference in Montréal, the only people who came to meet him were from a small delegation that represented one of the universities. Even generations ago, people failed to display the appropriate appreciation for the medical miracles that had been discovered in their time.

Last night was very different. The crowd of well over a thousand people, clapped roaringly in order to recognize the tremendous accomplishments that had just been presented. Also, while reality stars still seem to have a hold on most newspapers’ front pages, advances in medical technology definitely get noticed and written up in the paper. I hope that this trend will continue and perhaps even overtake the reality stars. On the other hand, perhaps we need to combine the two and have a reality show called “Kardashians cure cancer”.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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