Lee Ullmann, Director of the MIT Sloan Latin America Office
From El Mercurio
Economic growth, urbanization, and rising affluence are having a profound impact on the health of Latin Americans. Very little of it is positive, especially in Chile.
While life expectancy has increased faster in Chile than in most OECD countries and income per person has quadrupled over the last quarter-century, great disparities continue to exist between the country’s public and private healthcare systems. Healthcare costs are skyrocketing and many of the country’s public hospitals—especially those in rural areas—face a shortage of general practitioners and family physicians.
The modern Chilean diet—comprised largely of ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks—is taking a toll. One third of Chilean children are overweight or obese; one quarter of Chilean adults are in those categories. Chronic diseases, like diabetes, are increasingly prevalent. Stress-related disorders and mental illnesses are also on the rise, as are rates of alcoholism, tobacco use, and certain types of cancer. Over the last decade suicide has been one of the top 10 causes of death in Chilean men.
Today’s statistics are bleak, but we have hope for the tomorrow. Technological innovations and discoveries, powered by Big Data, hold enormous opportunities for Chile and Latin America overall. To explore this further, we are hosting a conference next month in Santiago—“Strategic Analytics: Changing the Future of Healthcare”—that aims to highlight the many ways in which data and analytics promise to transform the provision of healthcare. The conference is expected to draw hundreds of researchers and leaders from academia, health care, government, and industry.
Our agenda is ambitious. By combining MIT’s expertise in analyzing massive amounts of data and optimizing complex systems with Universidad de Chile’s path-breaking medical research and Virtus Partners’ strategic and operational insights, we aim to unravel the complicated underlying problems that plague the healthcare system.
Of course many countries—including the US—face healthcare challenges. Our hope is that this conference inspires engineers, medical professionals, economists, and technologists from all over the world to see the benefits of working together to improve human health. Our goal is simple: to keep patients healthier for less money.
Progress is afoot. At MIT, researchers have devised algorithms that boost treatment for certain diseases, including diabetes, using a combination of machine learning and electronic medical records. At a time when 1.7 million Chileans, or about 12.3% of the population, have diabetes, this research has important implications.
The dawn of telemedicine—which enables doctors to monitor patients from afar—also holds promise, particularly for patients who live in remote areas. (Chile is a long and skinny country, and about 10% of the population lives in rural areas.) Researchers at the Universidad de Chile’s Medical Informatics and Telemedicine Center are using sensors and other devices to monitor patients’ blood pressure, heart rate, weight, and blood sugar levels from great distances. Technologists at the MIT Media Lab are finding new ways to apply emotion technology and wearable devices to help sufferers with autism, anxiety, and epilepsy manage their symptoms.
Researchers are also finding new ways to contain medical costs. Using Big Data to measure returns of healthcare spending, economists are able to help hospitals uncover best practices and align incentives to improve the quality of the care they provide. This has special relevance to Chile. The country’s Fondo Nacional de Salud (FONASA) struggles with overwhelming management challenges and increasing costs. Meanwhile, access to high-quality technology and healthcare services is still limited to the wealthy.
The promise of Big Data is immense, but so, too, are its perils. Many questions remain: How do we ensure that patient data stays both confidential and secure? How do we safeguard against Big Data applications creating even more disparities between the rich and poor, and instead use it to build a more equitable healthcare system for all? And how should governments cope with managing the high costs of aging populations?
These are big challenges and nothing will be solved overnight. Our hope is that the conference will point to new ideas and solutions that improve patient health for generations to come.
Read the original blog post at El Mercurio.
Lee Ullmann is the Director of the MIT Sloan Latin America Office.
Rafael Epstein is the Provost of Universidad de Chile.
Marcelo Larraguibel is the Founder of Virtus Partners, the management consultancy, and an Advisory Council Member of the MIT Sloan Latin America Office (MSLAO).