Medtronic's Dr. Austin Chiang discusses Amazon partnership, cancer screening equity

Healthcare technology company Medtronic announced in February its partnership with Amazon Web Services to create a health equity assistance program, a program set to donate GI Genius endosocopy modules to facilities in low-income and underserved communities to increase access to AI-assisted colorectal cancer screenings. 

While the original agreement was to provide 50 units to communities, the partnership was such a success that 133 GI Genius modules were requested and funded, Austin Chiang, chief medical officer of the gastrointestinal business at Medtronic told Becker's in an Aug. 5 interview. 

Amazon Web Services partnered with Medtronic to screen community requests and prioritize communities in need, ultimately choosing 62 facilities to fund. 

The GI Genius modules, which check for precancerous polyps known as adenomas, can be critical when it comes to saving lives from colorectal cancer.  

"Historically, from what we've seen with practices that have the (screening) device outside of the program, there is significant improvement in detection of adenomas," Dr. Chiang said. "Every 1 percent increase in adenoma detection rate is consistent with a 3 percent decrease in colorectal cancer mortality." 

Dr. Chiang said many physicians and hospitals are still suffering from backlogs of colonoscopies that were unable to happen during the COVID-19 pandemic. And these GI Genius modules might be a way for physicians to get back on track. 

"Everyone is still recovering from the pandemic and its impact on healthcare. It's led to high turnover, staffing issues, and with staffing comes the ability to be able to deliver care because the capacity of practices has been reduced due to low staffing," he said. 

Dr. Chiang is hopeful that Medtronic, and other GI practices, will continue to embrace AI and collaborations with "unconventional partners" like Amazon web services to continue to improve the field, eliminate backlog and drive health equity. 

"I think a lot of other (medical) fields have already adopted AI more readily than we have. This is the first to market, FDA-approved AI device within gastroenterology, and so it's really exciting to see where this is going in our field," he said. 

"Right now I can say that the various GI societies have put AI as the focus of their meetings this year, and have created new conferences on their own just specifically focusing on AI, because there is so much potential to enhance what has already been done. I think there are a lot of ways that AI and machine learning can help better detect things early-on, and treat conditions more safely. It's something that, from Medtronic's perspective, we are very much interested in developing."

He believes that if Medtronic and Amazon Web Services can continue to leverage each other's strengths, a lot of good could come from future partnerships. 

"This is a great example of how we are open to these unconventional collaborations and ways of thinking. I personally feel like that's when a lot of innovation can happen, when we bring these unlikely partners together to come up with cool solutions," he said. 

And outside of Medtronic's focus on improving colorectal screening and healthcare equity, Dr. Chiang sees more interest in these issues on a national level. 

Two weeks ago, Dr. Chiang and other GI industry professionals met at the White House with the CDC, HHS and the team at Cancer Moonshot, a comprehensive program that spearheads cancer research. 

"This health equity assistance program doesn't address health equity entirely. It's one piece of a larger puzzle of things that need to happen to really fully address health equity and provide access to healthcare. The timing is right because there is a lot of attention on equity right now, and with respect to colorectal cancer," he said. 

"Clearly this is a priority for the current administration, and something we want to take advantage of. Colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S., and we think that this is a huge opportunity for the current administration to help us reach the public and get people screened better and improve access to healthcare together." 

Dr. Chiang hopes to lead Medtronic into a future that utilizes every possible resource available to continue to improve healthcare for all communities and populations. 

"I think that improving healthcare access in general is always top of mind for me as a physician. Part of increasing access is understanding other social determinants of health, education barriers, issues with infrastructure in the healthcare system, that play into access to healthcare. In replicating what we've done with the health equity program, there may be an opportunity for more," he said. 

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