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Health avatars — your lifetime companion

The MyHealthAvatar project is testing the idea of a Europe-wide network of health avatars for each individual citizen. Rather than being a virtual holographic friend, each avatar will be a web-based data depository containing a full record of that individual's health status. Other projects have had similar ambitious goals, with the GoogleHealth project having closed in January 2013 due to a lack of widespread adoption. Now, this new 3-year, EU-funded project, hopes to learn from other ventures and fully involve the public, clinicians, SMEs, researchers, and ICT architects in the whole process.

Together the consortium of nine partners behind the MyHealthAvatar project is exploring the avatar's four dimensions (clinical, technical, legal and industry). "The 4-D avatar offers a promising approach to acquire population data to support clinical research. We see each avatar as a lifetime personal digital bag showing their health status, including lifestyle and family history etc.", explains Feng Dong, coordinator of the project and professor of computer science and technology at the University of Bedfordshire, UK.

In addition to data collection, a clinician will gain access to integrative models and analysis tools, using innovative resources already created by the Virtual Physiological Human (VPH) community. The idea behind the VPH was to solve health problems from multiple scales at the level of the molecule, tissue, and organ to give a more accurate picture of diseases. In reality, the information is often difficult to collect, says Dong. Due to time restraints, the current practice at most hospitals is not at a multiple-scale level. However, the project is investigating technologies to scrutinize an image at multiple levels. In addition, Dong explains that due to the fragmented nature of health systems across Europe, gaining access to a consistent record of individual citizens has been very difficult.

The project aims to collect and provide access to a combination of data sources, simulations models, data-mining techniques, organ systems, and space-time scales. It is also incorporating mobile phone as a type of sensor record of daily activity and methods for extracting information from social media networks. "From the technical side, we have to provide useful tools and data to attract people to use the avatar by ensuring that contributing data is simple. Not only do we ne need to have smart ways to encourage uptake from the clinical side, we need to know what the user needs," says Dong. The project is currently surveying patient groups, doctors and the public to see what kind of information should be collected. People will also have the option to share their information with others. "If I have my avatar and I want to contribute my avatar to medical research, I can do that," adds Dong.

Dong has no idea how big the data set will become, but the feasibility study will examine how to store large amounts of data. Hospitals could make use of the existing resources and hardware or the computing could take place remotely. "Of course, if you send the data out to a remote server there will be ethical and legal issues surrounding whether you are allowed to get the data out or not," he says. "We have to ensure any solution fits in comfortably within the current legal system and, if not, provide recommendations for legal system for the future."

The next progress meeting for the project will be held in September. In the meantime, you can sign up to the MyHealthAvatar Facebook page for more news.

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