The quest for a healthy life is as old as human existence, and it will persist as long as someone is around to draw breath. Presently, progress in genetics, sensors, computing, and mobile technology is transforming this quest by altering the way we approach health. Technology is allowing us to gather more manageable data and information and create knowledge-guided systems. This may be one of the most important revolutions in health.
People started developing medicine in 7000 BCE to address health concerns in ancient civilizations, including Babylon, China, Egypt, and India. The best documented of these systems is Ayurveda from India. Ayurveda means the “complete knowledge for long life.” The most notable aspect of this and other ancient systems was the belief that optimal health is the result of harmony of body, mind, and soul. Any disturbance in this harmony caused by endogenous or exogenous factors resulted in disease. By making proper lifestyle choices, it was possible for people to maintain this harmony, extend health, and minimize diseases.
All ancient cultures focused on providing lifestyle guidance for good health. “Lifestyle” included healthy food habits (eating proper food at the right times) and maintaining a good regimen for an active life. For example, Yoga was encouraged as a healthy physical and mental activity. In China, food habits came from systems similar to today’s Chinese medicine, and Tai Chi focused on activities.
These cultures also started developing pharmaco-therapeutics initially based on herbs and common food items. These medical systems emphasized that an individual’s psychosomatic constitution is important in preventive treatment regimens. All these developments occurred during a period when the society was very data-poor, and hence these systems relied solely on empirical and anecdotal knowledge.
In the last century, technological advances have helped us control infectious diseases, and life expectancies have increased by almost 30 years in many regions due to improvements in sanitation and hygiene and in how we manage infectious diseases. In developed regions today, healthcare generally focuses on chronic diseases, which require different approaches to address them. To treat chronic diseases, predictive and preventive approaches to health have started to gain attention. “Wellness” has become attractive to hospitals and insurance companies. This focus on wellness has in turn brought traditional notions of lifestyle to prominence in modern healthcare practices. Now it is commonly believed that lifestyle changes may affect not only diseases like diabetes, but also may make a difference in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Lifestyle has regained its central role in health.
The main components of health are an individual model, disease models, determining the individual’s health state, and persuasive guidance for better health. All these components depend on diverse data, and artificial intelligence tools are needed to utilize this data to form models, determine health state, and provide actionable recommendations using a person’s model, current health state, desired state, and all available medical and environmental knowledge. Wearable devices and smartphones help in collecting all life events that in turn help in forming a person’s model, population data helps in building disease models, current sensor data and personal models help in determining current health state, and medical knowledge combined with environment and personal knowledge help in guiding the person. Healthcare is data analysis from different sensors guided by knowledge derived from all such past data and experiments.
Given all medical knowledge, the ability to collect data to build individual models, and detect a person’s current state, it is clear that emerging technology has made health a sophisticated and complex artificial intelligence problem. It is now possible to design an intelligent agent that can perceive a person’s health state and recommend the right action in the given situation. This agent must use reasoning, planning, learning, knowledge, and persuasive communication; be able to perceive the current situation; and have the ability to utilize the latest medical knowledge and theories for providing the best recommendation.
In the health ecosystem, the individual patient is not the only component. Other major components are doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies. Many other elements may become involved and play increasing roles as new technology becomes influential. Clearly, considering the perspective of different stakeholders, any emerging health system must understand these components, provide analytics and visualization, and have the ability to learn from continuous data streams in order to take perpetual actions.
Given all these essential and evolving components, health intelligence is the ability to analyze data streams related to health, organize all health related knowledge to make it actionable, understand emerging health situations, and help people and doctors navigate the health maze.