Cochlear to extract big data from hearing implants

After making the transition to AWS almost three years ago, Cochlear is excited about making the most of its data to help its patients.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

From spray-on skin for burns victims, the electronic pacemaker, the Gardasil and Cervarix cancer vaccines, or finding the medical application of penicillin, Australia has a reputation of birthing a number of medical innovations that have changed the global healthcare industry.

In 1967, Sydney-based Dr Graeme Clark began researching the possibilities of an electronic implantable hearing device, and by 1978, the first ever Cochlear implant was performed.

Cochlear then celebrated its 10,000 recipient in 1994 and listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) a year later.

Since then, Cochlear has performed thousands of operations and switched on the sound for those previously living in silence. It has also built an impressive global presence, but with that comes dealing with the way different countries and jurisdictions want information stored.

Three and a half years ago, Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, United Kingdom, decided it wanted to change the way a patient interacted with healthcare practitioners -- a move that would impact the business model Cochlear had been long operating under.

Previously, Addenbrooke's had a service department that allowed Cochlear implant recipients to bring in their external device, peripherals, or accessories that were experiencing an issue, and the on-site clinic would swap it out. The clinic would then send Cochlear the broken part and the back-and-forth would continue.

Addenbrooke's determined it was a fairly substantial expense to the hospital and asked manufacturers to tender for an implant business where the recipients would deal directly with the manufacturer, removing the need for the clinician to get involved.

After a recipient has had their device implanted, Victor Rodrigues, Cochlear's chief software architect, told ZDNet they would then get "switched on", which includes configuration via connection to a piece of software. The clinic ends up with a lot of data just from one recipient.

In response to the tender requirement, what Cochlear did was build a product called Cochlear Link that essentially transfers data to Cochlear, with that data available to global clinical support staff and repair technicians. Cochlear now receives the data in real-time, constantly syncing recipient data via the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud.

Once AWS was in place, Cochlear began rolling out Cochlear Link in the United States. At the moment, Cochlear has about 65 percent of recipients in the US on the platform. Rodrigues explained that the hesitation from the rest of the world comes down to the business model.

"In the US we have a business model that our customers will call us directly and we'll facilitate the troubleshooting, whereas in Australia and in Europe, the relationship is direct with the clinic and of course we honour that relationship," he said. "We do plan to have 100 percent of clinics covering 100 percent of the recipients in North America in the near future."

As Cochlear Link also does data synchronisation, Rodrigues said he is starting to see clinics that have outreach programs eager to jump on board. By synchronising data between the outreach centre and the main clinic, the recipient no longer needs to visit the clinic, as their device is able to be analysed remotely.

"We're starting to see more clinics interested in that and slowly but surely it's starting to pick up the pace," he said.

With recipient and clinician consent, he said that the possibilities of what Cochlear could achieve with the data it now holds is incredible.

"There is a rich set of data that exists and there are some jurisdictions that allow us to mine that data anonymously so we can look for specific trends in that data set," Rodrigues said. "A lot of this data actually contains information about the implant configuration and the aetiology of the recipient -- as well as any other particulars such as demographic -- so one of the things that we're looking forward to is applying various machine learning techniques to analyse the data a little bit more intelligently to assist recipients in their journey."

Rodrigues is excited about the possibilities this will open up for not only the organisation when it comes to creating new, innovative technologies, but also for the recipient and what a greater insight into their specific hearing loss could achieve.

"Especially when it's looked at in real-time you have the capability of determining what the recipient is doing in terms of the environment that they're in, whether they're exposed to speech, what percentage of the time they're exposed to speech etc, and you can start developing norms which gives them guidance as to how they're using the implant system," he explained.

"We can actually extract that data from the recipient's device, send it up to the cloud where the analysis is done, before it's back to them in real-time -- that's the power of it.

"The richness of the dataset is what we're excited about making the most of."

Cochlear is now looking to AWS for many other things than just a check box on a tender submission.

Disclosure: Asha Barbaschow travelled to AWS Re:Invent as a guest of AWS.

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