In a year that saw an unprecedented 197 vaccines developed at pace in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, we became much more comfortable with the idea of digital innovation driving fast-paced change.
It was also time to come to terms with the reality that human health and our healthcare challenges may be some of the most pressing problems facing us as a society in the ’20s.
From healthcare professionals through to patients, machine learning and augmented reality to personalisation and robotics, the healthcare industry is adapting to a future where scalable, personal, and effective solutions are created by, informed through, or delivered across digital technologies.
As we head into 2021, buoyed by the incredible array of innovations seen in 2020, we take a look at some of the most interesting technologies driving change in the healthcare sector.
Mobile Applications for health tracking
Whether it’s blood pressure, steps, sleep, or anything that sits in the wider self care space, embracing health data into daily life is truly at a watershed moment. After downloading your first sleep tracker, there’s really no going back. Soon, you’re chasing the highs of 80% rated sleep, diligently tracking daily steps, and hitting new PBs using blood oxygen levels. These trends are driving growth in mHealth, a sector which is expected to become a $189bn industry by 2025.
The landscape is brimming with innovation. Each new use case, playing a role in catapulting what was traditionally a tech-adverse healthcare industry into a mobile-first digital sector.
The market and competitor insights company Research2Guidance found in a recent study that ‘connection to a doctor’ and ‘diabetes’ dominate the most likely reasons consumers would use a mhealth app. Closely followed by daily health management imperatives such as ‘mental health’ and ‘body diagnostics’. So it isn’t just the super fit that want to better understand their wellbeing through data, it is everyone from the most unwell to the highest performing.
This understanding has driven a new generation of mHealth applications from pharma using apps to track medication adherence to patients pre-loading data capture before a visit to the hospital to provide more efficient trips. As the use cases mature and diversify from the original proof of concepts, evermore useful data is being tracked, monitored, and used to drive care.
The development of mobile applications and related wearables will see healthcare organisations create symbiotic relationships, which will increase data capture, drive better care, therapeutics and ultimately patient outcomes.
Smart Devices that seamlessly integrate
It’s estimated the healthcare IoT market surpassed £97bn in 2020.
This section of the industry is booming as a result of the increased proliferation of consumer wearables and connected devices, alongside the decreasing cost of sensor technology. Healthcare IoT leverages devices that obtain real-time data on health metrics like blood pressure or heart rate are a natural extension of the mobile-first eco-system and create rich new streams of interesting data that can be correlated against other information to understand more about individual patients.
Physicians can tweak care & advice in real-time, potentially avoiding costly visits back to the hospital and the negative outcomes related to unchecked changes in physiology. The proliferation of wearables and smart devices is going to create infinitely better datasets for more accurate modelling, which should provide further data-led support to health care professionals on the front line.
IoT’s growth is also riding the wave of technological advancements with the global rollout of 5G, which will see (in some cases) speeds that are 10X faster than some home WiFi connections. Whilst, we’re still a few years away from the 5G powered, IoT day-in-the-life nirvana that futurists have predicted, the groundwork is being laid for a generation of connected devices that will create scalable value in healthcare.
The challenges that will face both healthcare businesses and their partners is how to design unobtrusive tech that has the strongest security built in from day one, to ensure patient safety and confidentiality.
Machine Learning for issue identification
Your life’s health data is estimated to fill 300 million books. That’s a lot of paper.
The sheer scale of health data generated, collected and stored in today’s world is surpassing human computational power and as such, machine learning (ML) has become a prominent poster child for large scale data processing and statistical modelling that iterates over time.
There is growing evidence that ML is becoming a key differentiator as a diagnostic tool, the right datasets, trained in the right way are getting extremely good at spotting hard-to-diagnose conditions. IBM’s Watson Genomics is a chief example of the benefits of integrating cognitive computing into genome-based tumour sequencing for accurate and fast diagnosis.
However, wherever there is good quality data, ML is driving discovery… from pharmacological synthesis to medical imaging diagnosis, personalised medicine to optimised radiotherapy. Practitioners of data science are identifying new opportunities and testing their hypotheses at an amazing rate.
One interesting use of machine learning in healthcare recently came in Covid-19 outbreak prediction. The American Gastroenterological Association found Google search interest in the loss of taste, loss of appetite symptoms increased 4 weeks before a spike in COVID-19 cases in most US states, which meant that through an unrelated dataset, healthcare professionals could be alerted to potential growth in respiratory resource needed before it occurred.
Whilst ML is becoming ever more prominent in health care, there is a duty of care to ensure that the data sets are large enough, sufficiently accurate, sufficiently diverse and well tested to guarantee that existing pre conceptions and biases are not just recreated within a system.
Augmented Reality for procedure planning
Surgeons of the (near) future will likely need to feel as proficient using technology as they will holding a scalpel. Whilst augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) are not new technologies, recent computational advances are increasing the applicability of them in clinical settings.
Medical procedures generate vast amounts of real-time 2D data. Visualising this data into an immersive environment can allow surgeons to use it to their advantage. The balancing act is in the enhancement of the environment with technology rather than the technology obstructing or complicating tricky procedures.
Philips, a major player in healthcare devices, teamed up with Microsoft to deliver Hololens 2, this innovation provides supports for multiple interactions, voice control, eye tracking and gesture recognition which, crucially, allows surgeons to operate hand’s free.
Whether it is procedure planning, surgical execution or teaching the next generation of surgeons, we see AR & VR playing a huge role. For example, it’s thought it can take 50-100 cases for a surgeon to become proficient enough to work unaided. Now whilst the two jobs may seem unrelated, the aviation approach has been (for a long time) to spend a huge amount of hours in a flight simulator, healthcare is looking to virtual operating tables to provide the level (and complexity of training) to create more proficient surgeons.
Indeed, Touch Surgery, a London startup, has been producing software backed up by peer to peer research illustrating directly how this approach improves patient outcomes.