For years Australia has been considered a global hotspot for medical research and innovation. Many of our universities and research labs are considered absolute world-class, in fields from cancer research to genetics. But like every other industry, healthcare is now being turned upside down by software geeks and AI algorithms. If we want to stay competitive, we’re going to have to keep up with these changes. And we’ll need to hurry up.
Over the next few decades, we’ll witness an almighty collision of biology, computer science and engineering. Healthcare and biotech startups are beginning to look more and more like the software teams that we’ve seen disrupt almost every other major field. It’s now pretty common to see a team of computer science PhDs turning their hand to drug discovery or disease diagnosis.
In many ways, healthcare is the perfect use-case for AI. It’s inherently stochastic, and there are massive amounts of lab and clinical data available (all of which is growing exponentially). So it’s no surprise that we’ve already seen huge leaps forward in the space.
So far the biggest advances have been in diagnostic tools in areas where there are highly structured data sets and clean, closed-loop training data — think radiology, EKGs, MRIs, retinopathy et cetera. In some of these fields, we’re already at the point where AI is demonstrably better than human experts at diagnosing conditions.
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At Airtree Ventures, one of our recent investments, MetaOptima has already achieved this for melanoma detection. Another local player that’s making big leaps forward is Maxwell MRI, which is building diagnostic tools for prostate cancer.
The next wave of innovation will come in areas where data is less structured, such as drug discovery and predictive medicine. These are areas where data collection is more complex, and use cases are often more tightly regulated.
We’re already seeing Aussie startups make great strides in these areas though. Inventia Life Sciences, for example, has built technology for large-scale 3D bioprinting of human cell structures which allow medical researchers and pharma companies to run high-volume, data-driven experiments for cancer research and drug discovery.
Australia already has many of the building blocks to stay globally competitive in this new world of AI-driven healthcare. We already have a wealth of talent in medical research and biotech, and can pair it with a deep bench of engineering and computer science talent. We’re also one of a handful of countries that already have comprehensive national healthcare data sets. We have Medicare data on most of the 24 million Aussie residents, as well as national records of prescription drug use. This is the data which will fuel healthcare innovation in Australia in future.
But this all depends on how we manage the data — and the recent furore over MyHealthRecord shows how sensitive this topic is in the public eye. Many of the concerns raised about MyHealthRecord are perfectly valid, and much more needs to be done to ensure the data is secure and that it can’t be used to discriminate against patients for insurance or employment purposes.
But amongst all the partisan politics and hysteria, we seem to have lost sight of the massive benefits of centralised healthcare data.
Most proponents of MyHealthRecord point to the obvious immediate value to patients — that it gives immediate access to patient data to all health practitioners (in a world where most of the profession still use post or faxes). But the real value of MyHealthRecord is way, way more than this.
The aggregated, anonymised data from MyHeathRecord will reveal insights that will save lives — like drug side effects, cancer bio-markers, or early warning signals for infectious disease.
If people are allowed (or encouraged) to opt out of MyHeathRecord, the data becomes biased and will not be reflective of the whole population. It also opens up a rabbit
hole of ethical issues. If you haven’t contributed to the MyHealthRecord data set, is it fair that you should have access to a new, life-saving cancer drug that was developed based on insights from that data?
I truly believe that all of us in the Australian healthtech ecosystem have a duty to highlight the benefits of centralising this data and to help the scheme win the trust of the public.
Australia has a golden opportunity to become a genuine player in the next wave of health care innovation. Let’s not let partisan politics and fear mongering screw it up.
This article was originally published as part of the StartupAus Crossroads report 2018. Download the full report here.