News | 19 November 2018

'Virtual doctor to take over part of heart failure care'

Millions in grant funding to raise e-health to the next level

Researchers in the field of heart failure will soon be working on a digital application that is capable of independent, remote decision-making, such as prescribing medication and issuing medical advice. The Maastricht UMC+ and a number of international partners will receive in total more than 4.5 million euros in European grants to develop the system. At the end of the project (after 3.5 years), the first prototype must be up and running. Project leader and cardiologist Prof. Hans-Peter Brunner-La Rocca is convinced that in the future, e-health innovations of this kind can offer a solution for the ever growing demand for and costs of healthcare.

Molly, the virtual nurseMolly, the virtual nurseThis month, the current version of a virtual nurse known as Molly will be implemented on a structural basis in heart failure care in Maastricht. Molly is what is known as a care avatar whose primary role is to monitor patients and provide medical information. At present, a 'real' nurse constantly remotely monitors the data. Research has already shown that this form of care is effective. Numbers of hospital visits have fallen, and patients feel more at ease. However, to meet future challenges, researchers wish to go one step further, and actually enable patients to treat themselves.

Long-term vision
"If we continue along the current track, in the future we will no longer be able to provide the quality of care that people expect from care providers," explained Brunner-La Rocca. "As the demand for care continues to grow constantly, that care must be provided more cost-effectively, while retaining the same levels of quality and safety. The development of new treatments is also costly. To ensure affordable healthcare while retaining the capacity for innovation, we need a completely new long-term vision." The professor of cardiology sees a solution in the form of e-health applications such as Molly. However, whereas Molly is currently only used to monitor and provide information, a new version should be capable of much more, including the ability to advise patients on their treatment, to make diagnoses and to prescribe medication.

To make the project a success, a number of parameters must be taken into account. For example, the virtual medical practitioner must be self-learning and must be able to adapt to different situations. The application must also be user-friendly and stimulating for every target group, irrespective of their level of education, age or gender. A number of legal and ethical questions also still have to be answered. For example, who is responsible if something goes wrong with the care provision? At the end of the project, the virtual medical practitioner must be able to take medical decisions that are 100 percent accountable. "In case of doubt, referral to a care provider is always an option," concluded Brunner-La Rocca. "The application is currently being specifically developed for heart failure care, but of course, it could in theory also be deployed for other specialisations, so that eventually we can make the whole of our healthcare provision more efficient."

Over the next 3.5 years, the project will be undertaken by various research institutions, assisted by expert parties, for example from the field of serious gaming, artificial intelligence and tele-monitoring.