Although insiders regard the healthcare sector as rather conservative when it comes to adopting new technologies, several trailblazers are determined to make the healthcare supply chain more efficient and effective by rolling out new tech-based solutions. We present ten of the latest trends, which are already making inroads and could become widespread within the next two decades.
The unstoppable rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) is also visible in the healthcare sector, where innovative industry players are developing devices such as healthcare aids equipped with data-generating sensors. These kinds of ‘smart’ aids reduce healthcare professionals’ workloads and improve the quality of care.
One of the most progressive players operating in this area is digitalAngel (based in the Dutch town of Houten), a subsidiary of NPM Capital portfolio company Medux. This international platform has developed a full range of smart new healthcare products, including a smart mattress (which alerts users to the risk of bedsores and other health issues) and a smart bed (which, among other things, provides data on patients’ sleep patterns). The company is also exploring the use of technology to facilitate ‘remote care’. For example, an app with a connected scale improves care for people with diabetes. Since patients can submit data on their blood levels and weight online, they no longer need to go for quarterly hospital check-ups – remote consultations using the app’s chat feature are sufficient.
‘Smart connection’ relating to health is actually a wider trend in society. For example, there is a growing market for self-tracking devices used to monitor sporting activities and movement or lifestyle patterns (this is known as the ‘Quantified Self’). This kind of lifestyle monitoring is also being used for senior citizens living independently, for example by installing a network of sensors in ‘high-traffic’ areas in the home to track the resident’s movements. Some experts view this as part of a larger trend involving a shift of care from the traditional healthcare field to the consumer market.
The frequency of Google searches for the term ‘flu’ has become a more accurate predictor of an impending influenza outbreak than the medical field would be able to generate itself. Healthcare professionals are becoming aware that collecting, aggregating and analysing raw data can lead to new insights that both improve treatment and save costs. One example of the use of big data is the latest DNA analysis methods that make it possible to tailor cancer treatments to individual patients, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach that works for the majority of people diagnosed with the same type of cancer.
The emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is related to big data, to the point where the two are essentially interdependent. After all, these massive pools of data are only useful in conjunction with ‘intelligent’ computer systems and software applications (algorithms). The reason for the inverted commas around ‘intelligent’ is that the system still relies on the knowledge of human experts. AI is currently used in the healthcare field for diagnostics and to determine the most successful treatment. AI also facilitates new forms of prevention. Researchers in the United States, for example, have developed a camera system which is able to pick up on slowly changing movement patterns to predict up to three weeks(!) in advance whether an elderly person will experience a fall.
The use of robotics is already widespread in some areas of medicine, notably in complex surgery, where the pinpoint accuracy of surgical robots makes the difference between life and death. The application of robotics in actual treatment has proved to be more controversial. Whereas champions of robots argue that they can effectively support healthcare professionals in their work, for example by encouraging clients to move around more or reminding people to take their medication, opponents mainly regard the use of robotics as the further erosion of what constitutes the essence of good care: personal contact and a sympathetic ear.
A cyborg is an organism with both biological and technical components. Although it is, of course, a matter of definition, technically even someone with a pacemaker or prosthesis fits this description. The fact of the matter is that implanting technologies in the human body is becoming increasingly common. Some prosthetic devices can even be controlled by the wearer’s brain, while exoskeletons enable paraplegics to stand up and, in some cases, even walk again.
Drones are poised to transform healthcare logistics over time. In Denmark – a country that often finds itself ahead of the curve – the first-ever drone centre is already in operation, supplying medication and medical devices such as defibrillators to remote rural areas.
Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) are different types of technology that immerse users to various degrees in a simulated environment. While AR adds information to the existing environment and VR attempts to create a new, virtual reality, MR straddles the line between the two: it’s an interplay between digital and physical objects. This technology in particular shows high potential for the healthcare sector, with possible uses including the remote control of surgical robots as well as education and training, where MR can help practitioners to acquire more realistic hands-on experience. A specific application is the hologram. Doctors can use holographic projections – 3D images of body parts – as an explanatory aid for patients. It is even possible to perform virtual surgery on the hologram while a robot is carrying out the actual operation. VR is already being used in mental healthcare to help patients overcome their worst fears through exposure therapy.
Blockchain technology involves the use of a digital ledger to record transactions. A blockchain consists of a network of computers, each of which contains a copy of a shared database. Since this creates a chain of transaction batches (known as a ‘blocks’) which is virtually unhackable, this technology is perfect for sharing and storing sensitive data. Although it is increasingly considered a transitional solution, its long-term potential is immense. Many believe that blockchain (or its successor) has the potential to someday become the leading infrastructure for electronic patient records and personal health records.
3D printing is paving the way for a future in which everything is personalised for end users. And since we are all different, this presents a significant advantage for the medical sector. 3D-printed parts for hearing aids and pacemakers are already widely available in the market, while 3D-printed prostheses (including entire bones and joints) are now also being marketed for widespread use. In the future, it will even be possible to print organs based on personal DNA.
Biotechnology uses animals, plants, bacteria and other living organisms to develop new medications and vaccines. This is already a massive industry, aimed at solving a slew of urgent health problems, such as the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and curing various types of cancer and heart disease. Advocates of biotechnology regard it as the Holy Grail when it comes to fighting old age. This trend has the potential to radically change the demand for care and support in the future.