When a patient is admitted to the ICU, their vital signs are monitored by multiple devices. They might undergo an MRI scan, and have their blood samples analyzed in the lab. All these steps are taken with the aim of providing each patient with the best possible treatment. Interestingly, they also result in around 20 megabytes of data per patient per day spent in the ICU. In some cases, the data generated may even reach volumes of up to 100 gigabytes – almost the data space needed to store a feature-length film.
But where it gets really interesting is when patients give consent for their data to be used in medical research. Analyzing vast amounts of data in particular, more and more often using AI methods, can reveal patterns of how diseases develop and which treatments are most effective. These new insights provide the basis on which medical researchers can develop precision treatments that are tailored to individual patients. “Large amounts of data are a cornerstone of precision medicine,” says Beatrice Beck Schimmer, Vice President Medicine at UZH.
But is this invaluable information being put to good use? What are the four university hospitals – USZ, the University Children’s Hospital, Balgrist University Hospital and the University Hospital of Psychiatry – doing to unlock this treasure chest of data? “We could do more to leverage the tremendous potential here,” says Beatrice Beck Schimmer.
One of the main hurdles is that every hospital is currently using its own IT system. In other words, the patients’ data aren’t compatible with the other hospitals’ systems and therefore can’t be shared or used, for example, in various projects or for cross-hospital research. There is no shared digital infrastructure. And the hospitals sometimes also lack the infrastructure needed to handle these vast amounts of information.
But a solution to this problem is now within reach. The LOOP Zurich research center – a joint initiative of UZH, ETH Zurich and Zurich’s four university hospitals – aims to establish a new BioMedical Informatics Platform (BMIP) by 2025. The mandate to build the platform came from University Medicine Zurich (UMZH), with financial backing from the Zurich government. This will pave the way for centralized data management in Zurich. “The aim is to ensure efficient, simple data exchange for all involved researchers. This is an important basis for the long-term development of Zurich as a hub for medical research and healthcare,” says Michael Krauthammer, medical informatics specialist at UZH and co-project manager of BMIP. He heads up the new platform together with fellow co-project manager Gunnar Rätsch, a data scientist at ETH Zurich.
And this is how they want the new platform to work: for each research project, the four university hospitals will send the data they collect to BMIP, where all data will be gathered, stored and harmonized – that is, put into a format that will enable the data to be shared among the four hospitals. Existing biobanks with valuable patient information such as tissue samples will also be integrated in the platform. Moreover, the new centralized platform will cost significantly less than installing the latest systems in each of the hospitals. And the same strict data protection requirements apply to the data on the platform as in the hospitals.
The new BioMedical Informatics Platform will do more than simply provide a means to store and share data, however. It will also allow researchers to develop and apply artificial intelligence in a networked manner. For example, algorithms developed for a USZ project will now also be available to researchers at the Balgrist University Hospital. The platform isn’t a one-way street, as data and algorithms that are imported can also be exported again and returned to the hospitals. Applied to the example of ICUs, these algorithms can be used to quickly identify when a patient’s health takes a turn for the worse so that healthcare professionals can react accordingly. It will also be possible to apply the algorithms developed as part of the platform directly in the machines and devices in the ICU.
The Zurich platform will comply with the standards that are currently being developed as part of the Swiss Personalized Health Network (SPHN). This initiative by the Swiss federal government aims to facilitate the sharing of healthcare data in Switzerland for research purposes. Through an interface, the solution developed in Zurich can be scaled up and integrated directly at the national level. “Our IT platform could even make Zurich Switzerland’s gold standard when it comes to data-centric research,” says Beatrice Beck Schimmer. “This leading project for the Zurich medical hub will also help foster an interdisciplinary research culture at the intersection of engineering, medicine and informatics.”
First and foremost, however, BMIP is about the patients and how they can benefit from their data. Without their information, it wouldn’t be possible to improve the diagnostics and therapies for numerous diseases. The new platform aims to ensure that this can be achieved more easily in the future – by opening up the data gold mine to the entire research community. This will help create sustainable healthcare provision, pooling resources and knowledge to make sure each and every patient gets the most effective, evidence-based treatment.