This article is linked to these examples of Chalmers research in the diagnostics area.
Let us begin by emphasising that no, this is not yet another coronavirus article. Even if most every aspect of healthcare and diagnostics in the first half of 2020 has been about Covid-19, naturally there are many other challenges and future development projects for Swedish healthcare, both pre- and post-corona.
There is no question that Swedish healthcare is at the threshold of a major transition. Patient queues, overfilled emergency wards, primary care reforms and lack of staffing flit past our eyes daily in the news flow. Perhaps most of it can be boiled down to one question: Has healthcare become too good?
“We can achieve more and more, at ever-increasing ages and with better and better precision,” says Peter Gjertsson, Area Manager at Sahlgrenska University Hospital. He is responsible for Area 4, which includes radiology, clinical physiology and all the laboratories – the majority of the hospital’s diagnostics.
“But medical advances and the increasing numbers of elderly people in the population also lead to greater need for medical care. Now we need to turn to technology to help us. We cannot just keep working as we’ve done previously, we need technological solutions that allow us to do more with the same resources.”
AI makes diagnostics accurate and saves resources
A clear example of such a solution is AI and diagnostic imaging. If a computer can interpret images using artificial intelligence, the radiologist gets a pre-sorted selection to review; images in which the computer has already identified potential problems. This makes diagnostics more accurate, faster and more efficient.
“We also see a development in which technology allows patients to manage more of their measuring and diagnostics at home,” Gjertsson says. “The patients become experts on their own illness, which is an advantage for the individual and saves healthcare resources.”
He makes sure to point out that those who cannot use the new technology for whatever reason will still be taken care of with more traditional means.
Precision medicine is another burgeoning field. When genetic diagnostics can point out disease and diagnostic imaging identifies the problem area, treatments can be tailored to the individual.
Health research nearly all over Chalmers
Chalmers and Sahlgrenska University Hospital have collaborated closely for many years. Researchers from the two institutions have developed advanced medical engineering products, established new knowledge as the basis for better pharmaceuticals and conducted research on environments and architecture in healthcare. In fact, 12 of Chalmers’ 13 departments are conducting health-related research in a wide array of fields.
It became clear just how multifaceted the research was when Chalmers catalogued all of its research projects in preparation for starting up its new Area of Advance, Health Engineering. The new Area of Advance aims to build a common thread through research at Chalmers, linking it with external partners. It opened its doors in January.
“As we did an inventory of our research, we conducted interviews at every department and realised that many issues in the field of health were shared across department boundaries,” says Ann-Sofie Cans, Associate Professor at Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Director of the Health Engineering Area of Advance.
“Expertise is in demand, internally and externally, and as it turns out, Chalmers has a lot of it.”
Cans thinks Chalmers researchers have developed a habit of working in “silos” for far too long.
“Now we’re going to start up activities in which our over 200 health-related researchers at Chalmers can get to know each other, and also increase our external collaborations.”
Collaboration in Chalmers’ AI centre
One field of collaboration that has already taken steps forward is AI. In December 2019, Sahlgrenska University Hospital signed on as a partner in the Chalmers AI Research Centre, CHAIR. In practical terms, the partnership agreement is a commitment of at least five years, with jointly funded research in AI for health and healthcare. The partners have carved out several challenges that take priority. One of them is diagnostics. With AI, computer systems can process huge amounts of data – measurements, text, images – and learn to recognise symptoms.
Fredrik Johansson, Assistant Professor at Chalmers’ Department of Computer Science and Engineering, is the bridge between the Health Engineering Area of Advance, CHAIR and SU. He and his counterpart at SU are developing a joint research agenda.
“Although we have worked together previously, we can coordinate our efforts by partnering within the Area of Advance and CHAIR,” he says. “For example, we can see if several researchers are actually working towards the same goal, so we can improve efficiency and find synergies.”
Searching for patterns in patient groups
Johansson himself is coordinating a project in which students use collected data about patients with Alzheimer’s disease to have AI search for patterns. Alzheimer’s disease has many different forms of expression and is currently diagnosed using cognitive testing – things like memory tests.
“We know that Alzheimer’s patients have plaques that form in the brain. But some patients develop severe symptoms while others don’t, despite having equally extensive plaques. Why is that? We want to develop a tool that can provide a comprehensive look at the patient to determine the cause of the differences. We are looking at factors that can be measured when they are diagnosed, and that can also be monitored over time. The idea is primarily to be able to predict how the disease can be expected to develop, but perhaps in the long term we will also be able to develop a tool that can diagnose subgroups of Alzheimer’s patients.”
There are plans for a shared infrastructure and also for training initiatives. One example is training in ethical review, which has been requested by many Chalmers researchers who have not had to work with this before, and which is of course important in healthcare.
“We may need to train our staff in this,” Johansson says. “And vice versa, we are also talking about AI training for researchers at SU.”
“We’re here to support them”
Ann-Sofie Cans points out that Chalmers is also supporting the new innovation training course for clinicians that was recently started at SU.
“Sahlgrenska wants doctors to be versed in a variety of technologies. We can help them to find the right people to hold a lecture or arrange a study visit, like the one this spring on AI and 3D printing,“ she says.
“The healthcare system is realising more and more that they need the skills of engineers – and we’re here to support them. If no one uses our solutions, then they won’t benefit anyone.”
ABOUT: Chalmers’ Health Engineering Area of Advance
Chalmers’ new Area of Advance covers 12 departments and is organised in five profile areas:
• Digitalisation, big data and AI
• Infection, drug delivery and diagnostics
• Prevention, lifestyle and ergonomics
• Medical engineering
• Systems and built environments for health and care
These profile areas were defined based on the research represented at Chalmers, but they have also proven to serve as valuable access points to the university.
In addition to Sahlgrenska University Hospital, the external partners include the Faculty of Science and the Sahlgrenska Academy at Gothenburg University, the Västra Götaland region, the AstraZeneca Bioventure Hub, the University of Borås and Sahlgrenska Science Park.
The Area of Advance and the partnerships embrace not only research but also education. Chalmers and SU have started a pilot project with a joint graduate school in biomedical engineering. In the long term, it is possible that doctoral students accepted to the programme will be able to earn double degrees. Chalmers has also created the new Biomedical Engineering bachelor’s programme, in which the first students will start this autumn.
The Health Engineering Area of Advance has defined three social challenges of focus, in accordance with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: Changed population and new diseases, Increased need for healthcare in a society with limited resources and Health, climate and sustainability.
Text: Mia Malmstedt
Caption to the picture of the operating theatre:
The operating theatre in the Imaging and Intervention Centre at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, fully equipped with nearly 400 medical engineering products for imaging-supported diagnostics or treatment. This is one of the most high-tech, advanced surgical wards in Sweden. There are several so called hybrid theatres in the building, where surgery and diagnostic imaging can be done in the same room.
This year Chalmers’ MedTech West research centre is establishing a collaborative laboratory in the Imaging and Intervention Centre. Clinical trials in microwave-based diagnostics and magnetoencephalography (MEG) are planned to start in 2021.