Market Development Section
PHR Business Development Group
AI meets healthcare. With digital technology, Eiji Tomioka is helping to pioneer a new era in healthcare in which individuals get full access to their medical data and take greater responsibility for their own healthcare—all through their smartphone.
Managing all your medical data from a single app
I’m currently seconded to a Tokyo-based healthcare IT company called NOBORI. NOBORI works with medical institutions and technology partners to create digital services that enable healthcare systems to function seamlessly. The service I’m involved with deals with personal healthcare records, PHR for short.
We launched a PHR service called NOBORI—it’s actually a smartphone app—in May 2020 in Japan. It’s early days yet, but as take-up expands, it should serve as a one-stop solution, empowering patients to access and manage everything they need—medical records, test results, drug prescriptions, appointments—regardless of what hospital they go to. Through the app, people will be able to face up to their own health and to develop a better grasp of the overall healthcare system. That means they’ll make better practical decisions in choosing, for example, the optimum healthcare institution for whatever healthcare issue it is they happen to have.
Japan’s health system provides a very high level of care. One issue is that perhaps people don’t have a very strong sense of being able to engage with the system and manage their own health in a hands-on way. Using the NOBORI PHR app will change that by bringing people face-to-face with their own health and giving them the sense that their healthcare is really in their hands.
Patients aren’t the only beneficiaries, though. A PHR app like NOBORI is good news for hospitals too. By providing everything from recommendations for follow-up examinations after a checkup to day-to-day health and wellness guidance, it can bring the hospital and the patient closer and make communication easier.
For instance, you can set up multiple appointments from inside the app. As a result, you know exactly how long you’ve got between appointments and can do something worthwhile while you’re waiting. Equally, because you can pay online, you can go home after you’ve seen the doctor, without waiting for the hospital to process your payment.
As a company, NOBORI has an interesting backstory. Until it was spun out in 2018, it was the healthcare systems division of TechMatrix, a large and diversified IT solutions provider. Established in the late 1990s, the division was the Japanese leader for picture archiving and communication systems (PACS) for medical imaging, with a hefty 70% market share.
Over the last two decades, NOBORI has built up a cloud-based archive containing the imaging data of 34 million people and 200 million medical tests. This is a serious data set by any standards. Our task is to figure out how to leverage that data in ways that benefit society for the long term. The NOBORI PHR app only represents one of the possibilities we want to pursue by building on this strong base.
Creating a new business from zero
Mitsui & Co. first made contact with NOBORI in 2017. At the time, Mitsui had an “intrapreneurship” system for new business creation. (It’s still operating today, though the format has been modified.) Employees who came up with new business ideas could present them to management for approval and spearhead the resulting venture. No one was assigned to these projects, they were all volunteers. They would form a dedicated team, brainstorm more detailed ideas, then develop the one that looked most promising.
I was part of one such business creation team. The theme we’d settled on was applying artificial intelligence (AI) to healthcare. With the huge social significance of healthcare, we saw an opportunity to use technology to create value where it really counts. Our research showed us that AI is actually much better at image recognition than at natural language processing. That insight inspired us to try to develop a new kind of healthcare business based on using AI related to medical imaging.
Trying to come up with an idea for a completely new business at the same time as doing your everyday job was physically exhausting—but also immensely exciting and rewarding. We must have contacted around 20 AI companies in our search for a partner. None of them were quite the right fit, though. Why? Because although they all had fantastic AI technology, none of them had a stock of medical imaging data. It was only when we started focusing on companies that did have such data that we found TechMatrix.
TechMatrix’s initial response was cool. Eventually, though, they recognized that combining their technology and data with Mitsui’s business expertise and networks could be a win-win for both sides. From decades of experience, Techmatrix’ healthcare systems division knew what the bottlenecks in the Japanese healthcare system were—and those were precisely the things we at Mitsui wanted to address. Together, we reviewed and analyzed the challenges facing Japanese healthcare system and in 2018 TechMatrix’s healthcare systems division was spun out as NOBORI, a new company dedicated to solving those problems. That’s when Mitsui invested.
Of the five Mitsui people who originated the idea, I’m the only one still involved. I feel responsible for following through on the expectations of my former teammates. I’ll do whatever it takes to make this business a success.
Lessons I have learned on the front line
My most memorable experience since I started working at NOBORI? It’s probably something that happened when I was in a hospital sitting in as a doctor explained our PHR app to his patients. One of them was a three-time cancer patient. Someone with a medical history like that is going to be much more aware of their own condition and of what different data and test results mean than the average person. Talking to this person about their experience really helped me get a much more real idea of what we mean when we talk about everybody being able to carry their own healthcare data in their pocket. The hospital staff are just as passionate as the patients. There was this one doctor who was so enthusiastic about the app and the need for hospitals to be more open with their data that he was almost yelling at me. At first, I thought he was angry! Experiences like these really make me feel humble at the scale of the mission we have taken on.
A PHR app is a completely new kind of service. Inevitably, there’ll be some parts of the healthcare community that are less open to it than others. One reason is data security. Healthcare data is the most private form of personal data there is, so security is paramount. NOBORI is committed to following all the relevant national and ethical guidelines to make sure our users are comfortable with how we use their data. In the long run, I’m confident that wide adoption of our service will mean a better healthcare system for providers and users.
10 million users in Japan. Global expansion. New services
Our immediate goal is to increase the number of people using our NOBORI PHR app. We’re targeting 10 million users in Japan. That sounds like a big deal—but it’s only a first step. Once we achieve that sort of scale, we can start using the in-app data for research purposes. As long as they’re confident that their privacy is protected, most people, I believe, would happily give consent for the use of their data in the research and development of new drugs and new treatments that will raise the level of healthcare for everybody.
My other goal is to export NOBORI’s digital healthcare solutions to other countries. As a teenager I lived in Thailand and I spent a lot of time in India while at university. And one reason I chose to join a large global company like Mitsui was because I wanted to help create a society where children the world over could enjoy their education as much as I did. Looking back now, I know it sounds a bit kooky and naïve, but it’s still true today: I do want to do something genuinely useful for other people.
Education and healthcare are two different things, but both of them are key ingredients of prosperous and happy societies. If I can play a part in driving the digital transformation of healthcare, I’ll be on my way to fulfilling the goals I had as an idealistic graduate trainee!
Posted in December 2020