he healthcare industry has been surprisingly slow to join the global digital revolution, ranking in the lowest third of industries in measured digital maturity in 2015.1 Compared to the changes we have seen with financial and media industries over the last decade, the digital breakthrough in healthcare is still in its infancy.
However, new tools and technologies are already starting to make waves across the healthcare system and hold great promise to transform the delivery of health services in the near future – improving efficiency and bettering patient care. We highlighted a few of the technologies that are making an impact in an earlier article. The question now is: what impact might they have as they shape the future of health?
1. Improving diagnosis
Technology has the potential to provide doctors the ability to speed up and improve their diagnostic capabilities by better managing information flow. Increasingly powerful computing tools will help filter, sort and organize the massive amounts of information already being collected in electronic health records so that a patient’s most important health problem becomes visible more quickly.2 This will subsequently help physicians to more quickly arrive at an accurate diagnosis.3
These technologies may also allow doctors, hospitals and health systems to sift through the vast data in their health databases to more accurately measure diagnostic errors,4 and then potentially reduce the chance of these errors recurring in the future.5 Computer-aided detection has also shown value in helping radiologists more quickly and accurately analyze images for patterns associated with underlying disease, such as for breast cancer during mammography screening.6
2. More convenient delivery
Mobile health (mHealth) applications and wearable technologies have the potential to transform healthcare delivery thanks to their ubiquity and ease of use. Smartphones are already being leveraged as a practical health tool; for example, in conjunction with specialized attachments to make certain laboratory-based diagnostics for infectious diseases available at home or the point of care.7 They are also being used as an adapter with electrocardiogram electrodes to transmit data to detect silent atrial fibrillation.8
Remote applications extend to other specifically-designed wearable devices such as a patch-like smart device that can continuously yet unobtrusively monitor body temperature;9 a pair of smart glasses or a phone camera to show a sighted person the real-time visual surroundings of a visually-impaired person in order to talk them through whatever situation they’re in;10 or a small device that can be placed on the stomach of an expecting mother to measure contractions by reading the electrical activity of uterine muscle.11
All of these applications make gathering data and monitoring patients easier and more convenient. The potential for further applications is practically limitless.
3. Advancing personalized care
The increase in available data, testing capabilities and cutting edge technologies mean that we may finally be entering the long-promised golden age of personalized healthcare. By better understanding an individual’s genetic profile, more effective therapies can be used. In the future, before treating any woman for breast cancer for example, a genetic test could determine what genetic variations are present, and the physician would prescribe a treatment that is specifically designed to be most effective for that group.12
Genetic editing has also become a realistic treatment option, thanks to CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). CRISPR allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene functions to potentially correct genetic defects and treat – or even prevent – certain diseases.13 Already, CRISPR is being used to edit the genes of embryos to fix the heterozygous cardiac myosin-binding protein C3 (CMYBPC3) mutation,14 which is associated with increased risk for heart failure.15 It also has promise in the treatment of cancer by targeting cancer-causing genes.16
A prime example of “personalized” medicine today are chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-T) – in the sense that there is no medicine per se, only a patient’s own modified cells to treat the disease.17 Already, there are breakthrough CAR-T treatments for B-cell leukemia and lymphoma on the market. These initial treatments are just the tip of the iceberg – when combined with CRISPR gene editing technology, CAR-T offers significant promise in the treatment of many types of cancer in the future.18
4. Advancing access to healthcare services
The World Health Organization estimates that by 2035 there will be a global deficit of about 12.9 million skilled health professionals worldwide, disproportionately impacting lower income countries.19 Digital health can be a powerful enabler to improve healthcare outcomes in these communities. This is especially true in rural or remote locations in developing countries, which are half as likely to have access to care as their urban counterparts.20
Telehealth can play an essential role by connecting patients directly to doctors in faraway health facilities, providing a valuable link to the healthcare system without undue burden. Using mobile technology to centralize expertise also helps avoid unnecessary referrals and reduces costs for patients.21 Implementing digital solutions does not require the most costly technology – simple solutions such as using existing SMS or mobile internet technology can be quite successful.22
5. Improving drug discovery and clinical development
Pharmaceutical research and development (R&D) has become less efficient in recent years.23 Increased use of technologies such as machine learning may help reverse this trend by allowing the virtual screening of millions of compounds to potentially increase the number of possible drug leads.24 Digital solutions such as clinical trial simulation, modeling and simulation, computer-assisted trial design, model-based drug development and model-informed drug discovery and development could also begin to replace certain lab experiments, with a goal to reduce the time and resources required to bring a medicine to market.25
Computing power has recently started to become infinitely more powerful thanks to graphics processing unit (GPU) databases. GPUs were originally designed for video gaming and graphics, and can handle the large amounts of data needed to support artificial neural networks for prediction of compound properties in drug discovery.26 Using these powerful tools, R&D teams will be able to analyze massive volumes of disparate data sources, including publicly available clinical and scientific data, to discover potential therapeutic candidates among them.27
Technology is enabling the collection of far richer and more diverse information such as data on activity, sleep, vitals, circadian rhythm, behavior, speech, and more.28 This real world data can be used as digital biomarkers to help determine the most responsive subpopulation in a clinical trial, improving execution and possibly trial outcomes. The use of electronic monitoring devices can also be coupled with patient feedback regarding their recent dosing histories to provide an evidence-based approach to enhance patient adherence to medications in clinical trials, with stronger data as a result.28
6. Improving financial outcomes and increasing value
Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are making great strides in medical imaging, speeding up diagnoses and allowing radiologists to focus on higher value added tasks.29 AI can look at vast numbers of medical images to more quickly and regularly identify patterns, including variations that humans cannot.29 This may not only improve patient outcomes, but also save money – earlier diagnosis and treatment of many cancers, for example, can cut treatment costs by more than 50%.30
Back office functions such as scheduling and other administrative tasks are costly and time consuming – in fact, non-patient care related activities consume over half (51%) of a nurse’s workload and nearly a fifth (16%) of physician activities.31From billing and routine office work to more complex tasks such as surgical scheduling, AI-based technologies may be able to reduce time-consuming activities for medical staff, potentially saving costs while improving patient care in the process.31
7. Streamlining healthcare services and driving operational effectiveness
Increasing use of automation to reduce the burden of clinical documentation – extremely time consuming for most doctors32 – has been demonstrated to not only save time, but also potentially improve outcomes for patients.33 Speech recognition technology may also play a role in helping physicians record clinical documentation more efficiently, and improve the speed of results reporting.34
The ongoing implementation of 5G mobile networks worldwide could create the first wave of surgeons performing robotic operations from distant locations. Chinese researchers have already demonstrated the feasibility of remote surgery using the 5G network. In a recent experiment, a surgeon was able to successfully remove the liver of an animal from 30 miles away, thanks to an ultra-fast 5G connection.35 The European Commission is already considering the potential of remote surgical robots as it works to build out its ultra-fast 5G network.36
- Investing to harness vast amounts of data. Having the right people, processes and tools in place to manage, interpret and exploit the vast amounts of data that are being generated is absolutely critical. Whoever has the data – and can use it wisely – has the best chance to leapfrog the competition.
- Empowering patients. While previously doctors were trusted to take decisions for patients, the role of the physician is now more about coaching and interpretation. As technology becomes standardized, patients will gain more and more control over their health information.
- Demonstrating value to gain access to data. This data is extremely valuable, and the healthcare industry needs to convince patients and caregivers to share their data with them. This can only be done by proving through their actions that their products and solutions will have a positive impact on patient outcomes.