Modern medicine has done incredible work in eradicating some of nature’s ugliest diseases and illnesses, and the use of digital solutions promises to bring more advances in the the 21st century. Alzheimer’s disease is one such example. Alzheimer’s is a progressive form of dementia that slowly erodes working and long-term memory, according to the National Institute on Aging. As many as 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, and the NIA reported that among older people, it is the third leading cause of death. The mechanisms and causes of Alzheimer’s are still not fully understood, and there are no proven treatments available, though advances in data sharing and connectivity among care centers are forging new paths.

In 2014, the Obama Administration set aside $100 million as part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Nanotechnologies initiative. BRAIN is an effort to find new ways to identify, treat, and someday cure Alzheimer’s Disease, along with other brain disorders. Increased imaging capacity and an ability to share information through digital interoperability measures means that hospitals and doctors have more tools to combat the disease.

Government and private initiatives on increased connectivity are important in helping to ensure that patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease receive the highest quality, most up-to-date care no matter where they are seeking treatment. Sharing data and standards across disciplines and care centers is an important way to ensure smaller facilities can still provide the best possible care to Alzheimer’s patients as well.

Big Data

One reason why treating Alzheimer’s through collaboration is so important is that the disease requires input from many different specialties. As the Global CEO Initiative on Alzheimer’s Disease pointed out in a recent report, Alzheimer’s may be caused or worsened by a combination of genetic, non-genetic and environmental factors. For that reason, patients often consult multiple doctors across different hospital networks in order to receive the most accurate information. Through the use of electronic health records, new devices and mobile apps, the Global CEO Initiative believes Alzheimer’s patient data can be aggregated and shared in meaningful ways.

Data on Alzheimer's is increasingly shared online.Data on Alzheimer’s is increasingly shared online.

For example,  the Clinical Data Interchange Standards Consortium in association with the Coalition Against Major Diseases has made available a comprehensive document that highlights all areas of Alzheimer’s Disease. There is information on the demographics and symptoms of Alzheimer’s, as well as best practices and therapies for making patients as comfortable as possible. A resource such as this would be accessible to any physician or hospital with an internet connection, and that sort of interoperability may lead to improved care across practices.

“Diagnosis and understanding rely heavily on advanced, expensive imaging.”

According to the American Informatics Medical Association, exchanging information in such a way was not always possible, and resources like the work done by the CDIDC have major impacts for patient treatment. The AMIA reported that access to the CDIDC’s Alzheimer’s information can reduce the start time of a clinical study by 70-90 percent by lowering the need for initial data. By sharing information digitally, best practice protocols for Alzheimer’s treatment is available at practices and facilities. Increased interoperability capacity among hospitals is especially important for treating an illness like Alzheimer’s because diagnosis and understanding of the disease rely heavily on advanced, expensive imaging.

Imaging capabilities and sharing

Improvements in medical imaging technology are driving a deeper understanding of how Alzheimer’s Disease works. By increasing interoperability standards, specialties can share these important images among doctors, and patients can bring their often costly images to different facilities and care centers as needed. Despite the onset of functional MRIs, positron emission tomography procedures and other groundbreaking means of mapping and imaging the brain, the National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that patients suffering from Alzheimer’s need to undergo a whole range of imaging procedures in order to fully diagnose the stage and progress of the disease in order to identify the best treatment. For a doctor in Boston to have access to the same patient’s records as a doctor in San Francisco opens up a whole world of consultation, and gives those suffering from Alzheimer’s more freedom.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, using electronic health records is an important step in treating patients with Alzheimer’s. The association cites security concerns, but overall believes that data interoperability and EHRs are beneficial because they allow for increased communication and sharing between medical professionals. This collaboration is beneficial to patients living with Alzheimer’s, but also for doctors and physicians desperately trying to find the best way to treat the disease.

Information sharing can improve the quality of care of an individual patient by making transitions between specialties and care facilities as seamless and inexpensive as possible through image sharing and digital patient records. At the same time, access to nationwide data sets and best practice guidelines gives physicians more tools for making diagnoses and prescribing treatment plans. Likewise, there is hope that interoperability between researches and healthcare providers may lead to a better understanding of the disease overall and help pave a way to improved patient care or even eventually eliminate Alzheimer’s.