Digital technology can power personalized, preventive health care

David Entwistle, president and CEO of Stanford Health Care, and Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine.
Steve Fisch

Imagine that you are sitting in a movie theater. As you recline in your seat and the lights dim, the beginning of a feature film flashes onto the screen in front of you. But after watching for only a minute, you are abruptly asked to leave. Halfway through the film, you are allowed to return for another minute of viewing, and then once more at the end. 

Now, reconstruct the story. Who were the main characters? How did they relate to one another? And why did the movie end the way it did? 

Piecing together an entire movie like this would be challenging, if not impossible. Yet in health care, that is how we typically interact with patients. When patients come in for a visit, we see a small snapshot of their health story, often when they are already sick, and we care for them in that moment. 

On either side of the episode, we miss out on a wealth of information — knowledge that could help us understand how to personalize care for patients and intervene before disease has a chance to strike. Advances in digital technology are allowing us to fill in those blanks. And these types of advances are happening right here at Stanford Medicine. 

Stanford Medicine’s strategic priority is to be digitally driven. That includes embracing new technologies that allow us to continuously monitor patient health and engage people in programs designed to predict and prevent disease. 

In 2017, Stanford Medicine took an important step toward this goal by partnering with Apple to launch the largest-ever digital health study of its kind: using Apple Watch to screen for irregular heart rhythms in wearers. In less than a year, we enrolled more than 400,000 participants in the study, a sample size larger than the population of New Orleans, and continuously monitored their heartbeats. Our goal is to learn if Apple Watch can detect atrial fibrillation, a heart condition that causes 130,000 deaths and 750,000 hospitalizations in the United States each year, yet often goes undiagnosed. 

This kind of research, including its scale, is unprecedented. And we hope it will help us understand how digital health technologies can one day improve human health at a population level. That future may be arriving sooner than many of us imagined. 

As a tool to aid in the prevention and treatment of disease, artificial intelligence also has tremendous potential. Whether it takes the form of a deep-learning algorithm that can predict patient outcomes during and after a hospital stay, or of AI-assisted imaging software that can diagnose 14 conditions, Stanford Medicine is accelerating a new era of health care that will be defined by technology augmentation. 

However, even as we embrace the promise of these new capabilities, one thing won’t change: the importance of the patient-doctor bond, including the vital role of human compassion in healing. Stanford Medicine’s vision for the future is one that combines high-tech with high-touch to offer our patients a truly personal care experience. That, after all, is what matters most. 

As we consider our own future at Stanford Medicine, we are excited to have Paul King joining our institution as the new president and CEO of Stanford Children’s Health and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. Paul is a visionary leader who will guide our continued growth and preeminence in pediatric and obstetric care. We are thrilled to have him on our team. We also thank Dennis Lund, MD, for his exceptional leadership and his many important contributions while serving as interim president and CEO of Stanford Children’s Health.