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University of Basel

Protecting sensitive data, providing valuable insights.

Text: Tim Schröder

Medical details are strictly confidential. However, analysis of this information can reveal complex interrelations and therefore help patients. Led by medical ethicist Bernice Elger, an interdisciplinary team is looking at how this valuable information can be used safely and sagely in the future.

A tablet with y-ray images
Learning algorithms can support diagnostics and recommend therapies. At the same time, sensitive patient data must be protected. A team at the University of Basel is investigating how both can be reconciled. (Photo: alvarez/iStock)

For many joggers today, the pulse watch is something they take for granted as much as a good pair of running shoes. Many people want to know how fit they are and whether their training is paying off. Now, industry is even developing fabrics that can measure your lactate levels – a key health indicator that tells athletes, as well as older people, how well their metabolism is working – from your sweat.

The amount of health data of this kind has increased significantly in recent years thanks to ever-smaller sensors and advances in micro-electronics. This data is a treasure trove of detailed information on the state of patients’ health – especially when it is analyzed using artificial intelligence. For computers have the ability to detect unknown connections within the data that humans could not spot on their own.

In the interdisciplinary collaborative project Explain, a team led by the University of Basel is investigating how blood pressure and heart rate readings or patients’ oxygen saturation levels during an operation can be used to monitor narcosis and help anesthetists.

It is therefore conceivable that, in future, computers will be able to use such readings to identify more quickly whether there are complications – for instance, whether a heart attack is imminent. “Today, quite a lot of patient data is stored in hospitals that could be used to develop assistance functions involving artificial intelligence,” says Professor Bernice Elger, Director of the Institute for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Basel, but often this data is not touched because of data protection.

“In our project, we are exploring from an ethical perspective whether and in what way this information could be utilized in future for digital assistance functions,” she explains. For one thing is clear: Data protection is highly cherished. On the other hand, it makes sense to use the data if it can ultimately benefit patients.

An interdisciplinary team

Bernice Elger has brought together computer scientists, doctors and legal scholars for the project, which is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. For example, the computer scientist Carlos Andrés Peña and his team at the Haute Ecole d'Ingénierie et de Gestion du Canton de Vaud (HEIG-VD) are trying to teach computers and algorithms how to explain their decisions to people.

Bernice Elger explains that the idea for the project emerged from a long-term collaboration with Professor Luzius Steiner, the head of anesthesiology at University Hospital Basel. Having worked previously as a specialist in internal medicine, she is very familiar with how hospitals operate. “Luzius Steiner and I came to the conclusion that we can’t afford to leave patient data lying idle on hospital servers, as there are many ways in which it could be used. But that raises technical and ethical questions.”

The purpose of Explain is to bring the different disciplines together to resolve those questions. “When doctors and specialists in artificial intelligence work together closely, that helps us to develop technology that is easy to understand and to put it to good use in day-to-day clinical practice.”

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