Digital Health: The Emergence of a New Age of Medicine
Humans tend to be very curious creatures. This quality has given us the ability to question, explore and learn about the world around us. One of the most intriguing questions that sits in the depths of our minds, revolves around the future: What is going to happen in one, five or even more years? It’s hard to give a specific answer, especially if we are speaking about something as complex as life itself. We can agree that this question should worry the field of medicine as well. Who could give an answer?
Some experts argue that digital health can.
Today, traditional healthcare markets are transforming drastically. The convergence of new technologies leads to a sharp increase in opportunities in an emerging data-driven health economy, while governments must quickly (re)define their role in this new era, adapting regulation or enacting new rules, in order to keep up with the evolution of medicine. All these emerging and converging trends are creating challenges and problems for healthcare systems on a scale that is yet hardly fathomable. But as M.V. Hansen and R. Allen said, all problems are opportunities in disguise. Increasingly, healthcare systems are open for innovation and there’s no better perspective for sustainable innovation than digital health.
Why digital health?
Fair question. The answer lies in understanding what digital health is. It can be said that it is a convergence of two recent (r)evolutions – digital and genetic, that both have found their place in the healthcare industry. The overarching perspective of digital health is to make medicine more personalized and precise, as well as to increase quality, improve access and reduce inefficiencies in the healthcare delivery. For a better understanding, let’s turn to John Nosta, the founder of Nostalab, one of many companies that work in the niche of digital health. As he likes to say, digital health is a check engine light for your body. In order that healthcare institutions and the patient are “up-to-date” with info about the patient’s present state, digital health allows, for example, ECG and blood sugar tests to be sampled automatically during the day.
However, digital health is not only dealing with diagnostics. Finding the best way to administer drugs, follow a patient’s state more efficiently and even curing illnesses, these all are the issues digital health has to deal with.
That is why it is perfect for innovating four major areas of healthcare:
• Everywhere care
• Personalized care
• Wellness & preventive care
• Aging, chronic & end-of-life care.
Referring to the Deloitte study (PDF download), we can investigate some interesting numbers concerning these areas. If the care spectrum is shifted to lower-cost sites, like retail clinics with nurse practitioners and physician assistants, about 2.2 billion USD could be saved. This alone could lead to a rise in personalized care. Speaking of which, more than a half of the surveyed consumers would take a test to identify the drug and the dose that would personally give a better therapeutic result against disease or health condition. Wellness, preventive and end-of-life care would possibly bloom in these conditions and, as a result, lower the expenses on clinical care. From the year 2010 to 2014, digital health alone has already found more that 100.000 solutions to different topics in healthcare that are already approved by FDA and that’s not nearly the end of the road.
According to a recent Accenture infographic, the amount of viable digital health solutions will triple by the year 2018. This will lead to a reduction of expenses in form of billions of dollars in the US only. While this may sound overly optimistic, digital healthcare solutions, including devices and software applications, already helped save about 8 billion US dollars from 2010 to 2014. But that’s all numbers and expectations. To understand and create the idea of an emerging new age of medicine, let’s look at few examples and see how digital health is aiding and furthering the sphere of medicine even today.
Setpoint Medical is a fancy piece of technology resembling a pill that is implanted in a patient’s body. The best place would be in the vagus nerve of the neck in order to sense and reduce inflammatory reflex in such conditions as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and multiple sclerosis. The aim of this innovation is to offer less risky therapies and reduce cost. A neurostimulator from Autonomic Technologies follows a quite similar approach. Albeit the location and purpose differ, the principle remains the same – implanting a device. The company offers to manage cluster headaches blocking the sphenopalatine ganglion nerve pulsation that is involved in severe headache attacks. Both projects are undergoing clinical trials at the moment.
Smoothly passing from implants to plasters, there is Dexcom who offer sensor technology for disposable devices in order to track glucose level. Recently they entered a partnership with Google, whose objective will be creating and miniaturising their underlying technology. The main goal here is to create a system where all data is stored in a cloud for analysis and treatment improvement. Similar technology with yet greater success at the moment can be found in Echo Therapeutics where Symphony tCGM System is being developed. It successfully underwent clinical trial and now, with the support of the government, the company is planning to launch it in China as a so-called class 2 medical device for diabetics.
Proteus Digital Health has even bigger plans and is working on the Helius – digital health feedback system. Together with Otsuka Pharmaceutical and Novartis, they are developing an ingestible sensor which is integrated in regular pharmaceuticals. Sensors will interact with a patch so as to send vital data to the patients and their healthcare team. Vital information like pill intake time, activity patterns, physiological responses, heart rate, activity and rest will allow doctors to administer adequate therapy and reduce expenses.
One of the potential game changers is Google X, now part of the Alphabet family, whose impressing ambitions echo all over the internet. This giant is thinking about using nano technology to detect cancer. Magnetic nanoparticles will travel throughout the bloodstream, with the purpose of detecting any abnormalities. Doctors will be presented with all data through a wearable device.
As good as it may sound, there are yet many with unresolved challenges and questions like possible consequences of nanoparticles residue in our body and the potential of so-called false positive results that are commonplace in screening tests.
But even all these projects are not big enough if we consider modern medicine’s bigger picture. Is there something so big and powerful that can open the door to the next era? Let’s look at something very convincing.
Apple Inc. the technology and innovation titan that nowadays plays a major role in entertainment, communication and music industry. As you may guess, the next Olympus Apple aspire to conquer is the digital health industry. The new Apple Watch isn’t just a pretty gadget, it is an advanced platform for health, fitness and medical apps that will gather information like the user’s heart rate and daily activities to create a data base accessible for medical personnel. But the real game changer can be the Apple ResearchKit, which enables researchers and developers to create apps for medical studies. One of the most prominent figures in digital health, Paul Sonnier, assumes that Apple Inc. has the size, influence and ability to integrate digital health to medicine across consumers. All they need is a health ecosystem and the right partners.
And here, Mr. Sonnier has a point. Above all stands the fact, that Apple Inc. products are extremely popular. Playing their cards right, this company can make you care about your health on daily basis. Like tweets and Facebook statuses, a patient’s heart rate, glucose levels, your daily physical activities and even more will flood the internet and create a cloud of vital information that, if processed right, will help the healthcare system take the next step.
Today’s healthcare basically starts the treatment when the illness already has occured. Yet, there are only very few screening tests, like cervical cancer screening test, that can prevent a patient from further cancer development. It saves millions of lives every year, but it isn’t a revolution. What medicine has to do is to become proactive or preventative – act in advance of a future situation, rather than just reacting. In a few years, healthcare will be ready to become proactive, but to do so it requires data to work with, so as to allocate those who need help. So what are we waiting for?
Sadly, but true, there are problems we need to solve today so that the new age of medicine can be ushered in tomorrow. The biggest problem may be the need to modernize the healthcare systems and to ease the use of technology. Everything must be perfected for usability, in order not to create a burden for the users. A possible success will hence depend on the cooperation of experts from different professions, to find a shortcut solution digital health and modern healthcare.
To sum up, let’s imagine a scenario how medicine will look like after the bloom of the digital health revolution. First of all, people will have some hi-tech devices like phones, watches and other wristbands surrounding them. They all will collect data about their activities, their diet, vital information, and maybe even their psychological status. All this information will be sent to a medical team or even processed by a super computer like the IBM Watson and stored in a cloud. If some abnormalities arise, this person will be invited to see a doctor, given a prescription or even sent to clinical inspection. People will be treated in order to prevent illnesses, rather than be cured from them. Fatal cases should fall and longevity increase. Personalized care will be of top priority, but that doesn’t mean that community wellness will be neglected.
The emergence of a new age of medicine is not too far off, and digital health can play a vital part in taking the healthcare system to a new level.
To bolster that digital health revolution, it needs forward thinking visionaries, and a generation of hands-on digital health revolutionists.
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