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At the Heart of Innovation: How China's Procurement Team and AI Are Helping AFib Patients

In China, when the need for a highly advanced, nonsurgical treatment for atrial fibrillation (AFib) exceeded the supply of doctors trained in the lifesaving procedure, Johnson & Johnson's Procurement team asked for a chance to help. Thanks to quick actions and truly disruptive thinking, a new innovation in sourced artificial intelligence (AI) is now responsible for training physicians and, in turn, changing the trajectory of health for AFib patients throughout the country.
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It began with a feeling of being unwell, ill at ease. There was a bit of dizziness and nausea, too. Then Lee’s heart began to race, beating so out of control he was certain he was having a heart attack.

He rushed to the medical center and was immediately attended by medical professionals who determined that Lee’s erratic heart rhythm was caused by atrial fibrillation, commonly known as AFib. AFib is a type of irregular heartbeat that can cause blood clots to form in the heart and potentially move to the brain.

It was a frightening diagnosis, because AFib can be deadly. AFib more commonly causes strokes and heart attacks, but the prospect of death is real. Doctors determined Lee’s AFib was caused by a heart valve problem. When medications couldn’t keep his heartbeat regular, they recommended pulmonary vein isolation cardiac ablation or PVI. This highly advanced, nonsurgical treatment involves sending a catheter into the heart through pulmonary veins to neutralize the abnormal electrical activity that causes irregular heartbeat. Most PVI patients have a long-term reduction in symptoms, and a high percentage regain a normal heart rhythm.

For patients in much of China, though, PVI treatment opportunities are limited. Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices, the leading provider of catheter ablation products in Asia, has the tools to treat these patients, to save millions of lives, and to change the trajectory of health for AFib patients in China. But there aren’t enough doctors who can use them. Nearly 10 million patients in China have been identified as candidates for PVI, but only 900 physicians are trained and certified on the procedure. That’s more than 11,000 potential patients per practitioner—and new patients are being diagnosed every day. While Johnson & Johnson offers a doctor-training program, it hasn’t been able to train physicians quickly enough to make a difference.

The Procurement team in China asked for a chance to help.

It was a difficult sell. How could Procurement help solve the problem of a shortage of PVI-trained doctors? But the Medical Devices business leaders agreed to let them try.

Procurement researched potential suppliers and sent out requests for innovative solutions to 17 of them, asking for ideas around how to train Chinese doctors on AFib techniques more quickly. The selected companies came back with outstanding ideas, and three in particular exhibited truly disruptive thinking. The winning supplier demonstrated how the artificial intelligence behind image recognition could be applied to physician training, significantly accelerating the training process. It took Procurement only six weeks from asking for the assignment to put forward the winning technology.

Here’s how it works.

Under the existing system, Chinese doctors train on the procedure with either a simulator or real case with a supervisor’s help. The doctor’s actions are visually recorded and sent to an expert for evaluation and feedback. Due to the high volume of submissions and the limited number of expert evaluators, the process can take a month or more. The physician uses the feedback to try again, submit another recording and so forth. PVI certification typically takes 12 to 14 months using this highly manual process.

The process Procurement brought forward uses artificial intelligence to compare the physician’s recording to thousands of recordings of successful PVI catheter ablations. It can identify issues and provide feedback within minutes. As a result, the doctor training cycle and their eventual PVI certification can be reduced from a year or more to an average of six months.

The new training procedure launched in October 2021 and is expected to add 100 new PVI-certified physicians in 2021 and 600 physicians in 2022. This expanded expertise will enable 120,000 additional life-saving procedures over the next three years.

Lee felt lucky to have access to PVI catheter ablation and for the chance to live without the worry of stroke or worse. Today, he is not only symptom-free, but he is enjoying life as the doting grandfather of a beautiful baby girl.

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