2020 changed everything, and healthcare is no exception. Quite the opposite. The industry became some sort of rockstar and everybody had an opinion about it. Although digital health was gaining some attention before the pandemic, the crisis, with all its overwhelming tragedy and chaos, also accelerated in tremendous intellectual energy and freedom. Almost overnight, so many of the old constraints vanished. Healthcare organisations, technologists, and government agencies proved for the first time that speed, innovation, and safety were indeed possible in healthcare.
Here are the top 6 trends we have our eyes on for 2021:
1. Remote monitoring & diagnostics solutions will find their place in the standard healthcare pathways
The pandemic suddenly meant patients couldn’t go to a physical office to receive care and this led to healthcare management moving online. Remote monitoring solutions come in many forms, but one that’s seeing the most promising returns is wearable devices - a market that’s expected to reach more than $27 million by 20231. From heart rate sensors and fitness trackers to sweat meters that help diabetics monitor blood sugar levels and oximeters that monitor the amount of oxygen in the blood for respiratory patients, the wearable market is empowering patients to understand more about their conditions and health status.
We’re already seeing an increase in the use of medical devices at home. Patrik Sundström, Head of Digital Health at the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, noted that providers are accelerating solutions for self-monitoring for patients with chronic diseases, which has the potential to save money as the management and treatment of chronic illnesses accounts for around 80% of the cost of healthcare. This is appealing to private healthcare providers as well as state health, many of whom are working to integrate these into the treatment pathway. Leading the way, Germany has passed its Digital Care Act in November 2019 giving doctors the ability to prescribe medical apps that public health insurance will reimburse.
During the pandemic, with experts stressing the importance of rapid testing and tracking in managing the Covid-19 crisis, wearables and other health monitoring tech that enable diagnostics took centre stage. The pandemic has underscored the value of readily accessible health data — particularly as countries leveraging that information have had greater success managing the crisis. Government entities have also become more flexible during these unprecedented times and eased privacy regulations to facilitate more comprehensive remote diagnostics. Big tech companies jumped on this opportunity right away: Apple and Google announced in April 2020 that they were collaborating on contact tracing technology for mobile devices. Biotech companies followed with remote diagnostics and moved quickly to demonstrate value and capitalise on the eased regulations as well so we can expect this to gain further traction in 2021.
2. Ground-breaking technologies will be powered by Artificial Intelligence
There is no doubt that artificial intelligence will play a huge role in the digital transformation of healthcare. In fact, the global AI healthcare market is expected to exceed $34 billion by 2025 and reach almost $67 billion by 20271.
Since the onset of the pandemic, many governments and local authorities have implemented various AI-driven solutions to help address dramatic increases in demand for support services. The USA Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has deployed a conversational agent on its website to help people self-identify potential symptoms of Covid-19 and decide whether they should self-isolate. Portea Medical, an in-home care provider in India, has partnered with automation developer Verloop to create Cobot-19, an automated engagement platform designed to curate and disseminate information from sources including the World Health Organisation.
However, the future of AI mostly lies in precision medicine, genomics, drug discovery, and medical imaging. By using AI’s pattern recognition, doctors can prescribe personalised treatment plans tailored to a patient’s genetic makeup and lifestyle. On the other side of the coin, pharma and biotech companies are using machine learning algorithms to shorten the drug development cycle and increase the speed at which vaccines are developed, such as the Covid-19 vaccine. And researchers in the United States have recently developed an AI tool that accurately recognises and diagnoses Covid-19 even in asymptomatic patients just by the sound of a cough, proving that the potential of AI to revolutionise healthcare is enormous.
3. Virtual reality will eliminate the need for certain medications and surgeries
VR has been with us for decades now, but the technology was often viewed as recreational. The main selling point is that by wearing a VR headset, you get to feel like you’re in a fun, immersive experience. However, 2020 was the year when this consumer-driven technology also became a next-level tool for the medical community.
In healthcare, VR technology is currently being used to treat chronic pain, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as to train clinicians. Oxford Medical Simulation recently offered its VR training system free of charge to hospitals and medical schools that needed to train large numbers of staff on treating coronavirus patients. Medical schools are also using it to train future doctors, enable surgeons to test techniques when preparing for complex surgeries, and even experienced physicians are finding it helpful for practising new procedures and perfecting old ones. Due to its potential to eliminate the need for certain medications and surgeries, the global market of digital health VR is expected to grow to $2.4 billion by 2026 contributing to the already massive $12.6B VR enterprise industry2.
4. Telemedicine is more convenient than traditional appointments and it’s here to stay
Covid-19 forced the medical community to adopt and embrace telehealth services. Telemedicine, or the practice of clinicians seeing patients virtually rather than in physical offices and hospitals, has increased tremendously over the last 12 months. Industry advocates have been making the case for telehealth for years, pointing to its potential to lower costs, ease pressure on overextended healthcare systems, and make care more accessible in rural and underserved areas. The technology was a slow-growing trend hampered by regulations, security issues, and privacy concerns but once the pandemic made in-person visits problematic, telehealth exploded in popularity.
Covid-19 has demonstrated that remote consultations are not only possible but also easy and often preferable. In fact, according to the American Medical Association, about 75% of doctor, urgent care and ER visits are either unnecessary or could be handled safely and effectively over the phone or video. During the pandemic, almost half (48%) of all US physicians said they had treated patients virtually, a drastic rise compared with 18% in 20182. On the patient side, 60% of American consumers said they were more willing to try telehealth services due to the Covid-19 pandemic2. In the near future, we will see this trend moving beyond our first line of primary care specialists like clinicians and physicians to specialist care healthcare professionals such as nurses, midwives, nutritionists as well as psychologists.
The uptake of online therapy has been low, mainly because healthcare practitioners were hesitant to take it on. However, with social distancing and lockdown orders in place and with more people dealing with anxiety and depression as a result, remote mental healthcare has become a necessity. As more people make a habit of tending to their mental health throughout the pandemic, teletherapy services will likely see continued demand after the coronavirus outbreak subsides. Additionally, the crisis could have lingering effects on mental health and, once social distancing orders are lifted, these services will still be needed.
5. Accessibility, commercialisation and data
2021 will mark the move towards consumerisation of healthcare and the start of global data sharing systems, even though there are still many constraints in place.
The most sophisticated information — from treatment protocols to CT scans or genomic information — is soon going to be as easily accessible as your bank balance. The technology produces data and, since healthcare apps are growing in popularity, so is the amount of data these apps generate. Google announced its acquisition of Fitbit in November 2019 as part of its broader initiative to establish a presence in the healthcare technology space as an equivalent for Apple and the Apple Watch products. Data is Google’s speciality and health care data attained from Fitbit is vital.
The pandemic has shown that countries are facing similar healthcare challenges, not only in relation to coronavirus but also in terms of delivering good quality and efficient care to people in need. Nations around the world are working on a more comprehensive and accessible electronic health records system. In Sweden all citizens and residents have a personal identification number that is used for all healthcare documentation. Researchers that have access to these digital health portals can revel in a treasure trove of data. It can also be advantageous for sprawling hospital and university systems that need an easy way to share information, images and records. During the height of the pandemic, Sweden also set up an Intensive Care Registry to collect data on the cases of coronavirus that ended up in intensive care units. In addition, all prescriptions and dispatches are electronic, which made it easy to keep track of the stock of medicines.
There are many benefits to having access to a unified system of patient records, including a lower rate of medication errors, the facilitation of preventive care, and more accurate staffing. Interoperability — the basics of sharing vital data — is one of the areas for healthcare innovation today. This rising trend is about taking down information silos to create healthcare systems that work with each other. Countries, healthcare institutions and research centres are dependent on each other and they can learn from each other and exchange data when things go wrong. This makes life easier for everyone – for the patient who is tired of having to manage multiple logins to separate systems, but also for the provider who needs to access and share your health information with other members of the healthcare system.
6. Elderly care
Elderly care has long been a target for technological innovation, with advocates highlighting the practical and infrastructural challenges 73 million baby boomers and its ageing population is destined to face. With Covid-19 proving particularly dangerous among patients age 60+, the crisis has further accelerated the need for solutions that help seniors age comfortably. It has presented a unique opportunity for a range of senior care technologies to demonstrate their importance.
Residential care home facilities have also taken measures to upgrade their digital infrastructure, primarily in communication and fighting against loneliness. Since social distancing has been imperative in care home facilities, managers have turned to digital communication platforms to connect residents with family and friends. As it proved its value, digital infrastructure is likely to become a permanent fixture of senior care, both in-home and in care facilities, and investments in digital technologies including teleconferencing are likely to increase.
Some positives have arisen from the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 and they have forced us to revisit how we provide healthcare. Start-ups around the globe are already fighting for the opportunity to create the next disruptive piece of healthcare tech and if there was ever a time to invest in digital health, it’s now. The momentum is here to use technology to collaborate with other innovators and create innovative products and services, thus improving the lives of millions of people. HexTransforma is no exception – we are working tirelessly building solutions that will improve the lives and outcome of patients whilst increasing efficiency for clinicians. We cannot wait to reveal our new products later this year. Stay tuned!