Developing smart technology to help patients assess and manage pain is a deeply personal pursuit for Sara Berger, who spent years watching her parents cope with chronic painand struggle to navigate the medical system. “A lot of the suffering from having chronic pain is about no longer having control over your body and your body’s sensations,” says Berger. “Being able to use digital technologies provides a sense of control and creates more informed conversations with physicians.”
A neuroscientist at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center, Berger employs machine learning to quantify long-term pain and help predict ways to relieve it. With wearables and environmental sensors, she can capture metrics including heart rate, sleep patterns, and even the acoustic properties of a patient’s speech, all of which provide data about the person’s pain experience. Those metrics can then be analyzed using machine learning, taking into consideration other factors such as the emotional toll that often results from chronic discomfort, decreased mobility, or lost time with loved ones. What results is a far more holistic and informed assessment and treatment plan than those informed by traditional pain scales, which are prone to bias and oversimplification. “Pain isn’t linear,” says Berger. “Our assessment of it shouldn’t be either.”
Many people with chronic conditions, especially women and people of color, feel marginalized by the health care system and experience bias when they seek treatment for pain. “I’m on a mission to transform pain management into an accessible, personalized, and trusted experience for individuals across different socioeconomic backgrounds,” says Berger.