You walk into the clinic. A tablet waits for you with questions already up on screen.
You answer the questions and then take a seat. Five minutes later, a nurse calls you into the examination room.
The nurse takes your pulse and your temperature, noticing that you have a slight fever and that your heart is beating a bit faster than your information, gathered daily from your wearable, seems to suggest is normal. You’ve also been sleeping less, she notices, and exercising less regularly.
The nurse leaves the examination room. The doctor enters a moment later, with a prescription for antibiotics. You have an ear infection.
This is the future of Digital Health. With apps becoming smoother and technology becoming faster, healthcare—and digital health careers—will soon be picking up the pace.
What is Digital Health?
In the broadest sense, Digital Health is the part of healthcare that ties technology to medicine. Some examples of Digital Health are:
- Mobile health (mHealth)
- Health information technology (Health IT)
- Wearable devices
- Digital hospitals at large
Unsurprisingly, this field has grown with the technology itself. As we depend more on gadgets, we integrate them into the most minute aspects of our daily lives.
Why is Digital Health Popular?
Smart technology is changing many aspects of our lives. Recent applications include Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Smart Homes, and now it is moving into the doctor’s office—this is Digital Health.
Amazon USA exemplifies AI’s surge to the forefront of Smart technology. According to Forbes, Echo sales rose 400% in 2016 and Alexa, in addition to dominating the holiday market, saw a 1500% increase in third-party developers in the same year. These trends mirror those across the globe, with worldwide Alexa sales rising from 2.4 million in 2015 to 5.2 million in 2016. With this momentum, there is no question as to why some people predict that we will be using AI to conduct over half of all web searches by 2020, and that the same technology will revolutionize Medical Technology (“MedTech”).
Indeed, the “Me” generation likes the sound of its own voice so much, it has programmed machines with similar interests, but AI goes beyond searching the web, making calls, and sending text messages. When integrated with the Smart Home, voice-activated technology can turn on lights, adjust temperatures, and even program deliveries: it can truly become a personal assistant.
This assistantship aspect is what has solidified the partnership between Digital Health and AI. And the numbers show how eager health IT is to add AI to its toolkit. Between 2014 and 2015, new deals in AI rose 60%. Over 50% of these projects were in their “seed”—or development—stages too; companies were adopting technology that hadn’t even been programmed yet!
Such institutional openness is definitely new, and certainly worth noting: healthcare institutions are overlooking budget priorities to implement MedTech that will pay for itself in terms of patient benefit. That, in a nutshell, is Digital Health’s major selling point.
What Problems Does Digital Health Solve?
Issue: High Prices and Low Quality
The price of healthcare—and especially its impact on national budgets—has been a hot political topic over the past decade. The cost of healthcare nearly doubled in the United States between 2005 and 2015, with families paying nearly $25,000 out of pocket. Between 2003 and 2013, healthcare spending in western Europe, Japan, the United States and Australia rose an average of 2.17% per year, with governments providing an annual average of $2,598 per patient.
Sadly, this increased spending has correlated with neither availability nor quality. In European hospitals, it is predicted that the number of available beds per patient will decrease to 4.81 in 2020, down from 5.31 in 2010. Medical professionals are also in decline. Between 2009 and 2014, the UK, Ireland and Greece reported a decrease in practising nurses. Coupled with the worldwide physician shortage reported by the World Health Organization, it appears that the standard of healthcare will diminish for even those in developed nations.
For those who do receive treatment, the shortage of practitioners can lead to a lower quality of care. In the EU, at least, the two things seem to be correlated: between 2009 and 2013, “very good” healthcare quality ratings dropped 4%, and “fairly good” healthcare quality ratings dropped 3%. In summary, it appears that budget increases have done little to quell attrition rates among those in health education programs, or the decrease in care quality that their departure brings.
Solution: Streamlining Services
Luckily, Digital Health has allowed healthcare providers to address budget concerns, increase the availability of treatments, and augment the quality of care and care planning by providing the means for practitioners to work within budget limits, provide medicine to more patients, and make visits more efficient.
In a linear sense, we could consider apps the gateway to Digital Health’s efficiency revolution. Pharmacies especially reaped the benefits of these innovations, developing apps that allow patients to schedule prescription pick-ups, check prescription delivery status, and communicate with pharmacists via fluid, comprehensive patient suites. In large, digital health has the potential to improve patient experience significantly.
Continuing on this path, pharmacies have since transitioned from traditional corner stores to small-scale clinics, giving patients the freedom to make appointments for cholesterol checks, flu shots, and even athletic physicals directly from their apps. These changes work in an economic sense as well: a visit to a pharmacy clinic halves wait time—and cost.
US pharmacies, such as CVS, have capitalized on this idea. Other pharmacies that have implemented mobile health apps are:
Traditional healthcare centres also seem on board with streamlined MedTech. By consolidating patient medical history in a fluid, easy-to-read chart, healthcare apps have produced more meaningful doctor-patient dialogue, more precise diagnoses, and more efficient visits. With the help of point-of-care (POC) diagnostics administered by tablet, clinics and offices alike are using mobile health to save on waiting time (PDF) as well as overhead costs. Even Readmissions and Emergency Departments are made more efficient by digital solutions.
To truly personalise the patient experience, however, data need not come exclusively from doctor-patient contact. By integrating their apps with professional grade MedTech, wearable devices provide medical professionals with patient information about exercise, water intake, and sleep before and long after the check-up has ended.
Apps are one of the cornerstones of Digital Health. As they have given rise to patient suites, they have formed a potential solution for problems with healthcare budgets, care quality, patient monitoring and medication management.
The Future of Digital Health
Looking at the devices it has harnessed, Digital Health can safely be called a thief in many ways. MedTech developers rely on materials invented for other means, but this dynamic is changing as Digital Health comes into its own. In the coming decade, Digital Health plans to tap into the following areas:
- Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Beyond apps, they plan to bring other devices into the doctor’s office and onto the operating table.
AI-enabled Smart Houses
It is predicted that the disabled and aging population will increase twofold by 2040. Likewise, healthcare data suggests that the number of diabetes sufferers will surge to 200 million by 2030, and that 50% of healthcare spending will go toward chronic cardiovascular and respiratory conditions by 2020.
We know what you’re thinking: what do these statistics have to do with AI and the Smart Home?
Generally speaking, the Smart Home is already a reality. Thanks to Apple, Amazon, and Google, we can control the temperature, lighting, and even blinds in our homes from our phones. While these adjustments may seem like simple comforts, they make a world of difference for the elderly and people with certain chronic conditions; the very people on whom healthcare will focus most. In a Smart Home, these individuals can make changes to their living environments without having to move.
But the benefits don’t stop there. As AI becomes more intelligent, and as voice- and touch-recognition technologies (collectively called biometrics) become more sophisticated, elderly and chronically-ill individuals will be able manage their symptoms without depending on human assistance.
Take Alexa, for example. Currently, the device relies on “wake words,” or specific phrases that “unlock” its ability to make changes in the home. Amazon has revealed plans to improve this function, tapping into biometrics, so Alexa can understand a command—as well as who said it—by vocal tone alone. In this way, AI becomes a part of the family, as well as a personal assistant for those needing care.
This advancement comes paired with an improved capacity to understand medical distress signals. Siri, for instance, can call 911 on newer iOS platforms and has helped families reach assistance. However, according to CNET, Siri has not progressed to the level of comprehending specific medical or psychological concerns like “I’m having a heart attack” or “I want to kill myself”. Apple, however, plans to tackle this problem, especially as medical institutions adopt its technologies. In the future, people could find themselves a voice command away from emergency care, specialist advice, or personal assistance.
If you are particularly interested in the topic of AI in healthcare, you might also like our dedicated feature on this issue.
While AI has helped Digital Health change the home and the office, robotics is set to transform the operating room (PDF). One of the longest-developing MedTech interventions, it is predicted to triple in market value by 2022.
Robots performing operations sounds like science fiction, but surgical robots have revolutionised the way doctors and patients approach surgery since the early 2000s. The DaVinci Surgical System, considered the first surgical robot, allowed doctors to enter the body via a quarter-inch opening rather than a foot-long incision. Now popular in heart valve repairs, hysterectomies, and prostate removals, it made these procedures far less invasive after receiving FDA approval in 2000.
By “shrinking” the doctor, robotic surgery causes less physical trauma to the patient while permitting more precise interventions. Likewise, more advanced institutions have begun to experiment with preprogramed robots for smaller, non-critical procedures as well as more sophisticated operations. Scientists at Harvard, for instance, have begun to pilot an endoscopy system that, instead of a camera, consists of a small pill that retrieves data after being swallowed by the patient. Similarly, the NeuroArm, recently acquired by the US MedTech developer IMRIS, can perform advanced brain surgery while dramatically decreasing physical damage and recovery time.
Virtual Reality for Pain Distraction
In non-anaesthetic surgical procedures, medical professionals often employ pain distraction techniques, in conjunction with pain relievers, to alleviate the discomfort of the operation. These procedures do not eliminate the pain, of course, but aim to take the patient’s mind off it.
Virtual Reality (VR) is a technology that, as of 2016, has moved out of the experimental stage and onto the showroom floor. Companies like Samsung and Sony have developed devices that allow users to play a video game hero, or view films from the front row. Totally immersed in the experience, they pay little to no attention to the world around them.
Even in our connected world, healthcare can still be out of reach to some. This is not only the case for developing countries, but also for parts of Europe. Although some doctors are a phone call away, distance does make a difference
Luckily, companies like Amazon, as well as the US start-up, Zipline, want to find a solution. Amazon Prime Air began delivering prescription drugs to parts of the UK in late 2016, and looks to make a more widespread debut in 2017. Zipline has been critical in crisis management, delivering food and medical supplies in Rwanda. Whether next door or across the globe, drone delivery is emerging as an imminent solution to the problem of healthcare access.
Digital Health and Work
Flexible Freedom and Programming Perks
Medical professionals typically work from a fixed location, holding office hours established by their employers. However, Digital Health’s emphasis on hospital communication and the reduction of overhead costs has brought concierge—that’s house-call—and telemedical services back into vogue. Whether in person, from the office, or using a mix of both, healthcare workers can now provide services around the clock via apps such as Doctor on Demand, eVisit, and HealthTap.
In addition to flexibility for professionals, Digital Health apps have also enhanced flexibility for patients. Now able to seek help at home, patients no longer need to consider distance or time when needing assistance. Suddenly, a 4 a.m. fever is no sweat.
Patients using these services also have more one-on-one time with their doctors. On average, concierge and telephone-based doctors provided a quarter of patients treated with in-office services. Although it sounds like treating fewer patients would hinder productivity, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, the trend points not only to more opportunities for future doctors, but also a more thorough understanding of patient conditions.
While Digital Health puts doctor schedules and patient satisfaction at the fore, the term “Digital Health” implies that “Digital” sometimes comes before “Health.” With house calls, as much as with the hospital, technical support is critical to keep operations running smoothly, access to data fast, and patient records safe. In addition to medical staff, healthcare facilities are currently expressing a need for programmers, coders, and cybersecurity professionals.
Big Data and Individual Patients
Apps—and especially apps designed to track health—collect data. When apps (or rather, app users) collect enough data, it becomes Big Data, or information diverse enough to reveal trends over time. These trends establish norms for general diagnosis but they also establish norms for patients as individuals.
Even if they ignored its future applications, consumers first experienced personal Big Data via nutrition and fitness apps, like FitBit and MyFitnessPal. When used over an extended period, they help consumers recognize patterns in their own sleep, nutrition, and fitness habits with the goal of improving them. But these improvements are subjective: an athletic teenage male and a stay-at-home mom would have vastly different profiles.
Healthcare institutions (PDF) are beginning to draw upon this concept, sometimes integrating with personal apps to better track patient data and provide professionals with a more global idea of patient trends. This way, doctors “see” patients on a day-to-day basis, rather than from appointment to appointment, and they can compare them with similar patients with similar health goals.
The Sky Is the Limit
Flexibility and programming skills are a given for Digital Health, but that doesn’t mean we should see them as limits. Digital Health is a totally new field with opportunities that have we have yet to explore fully. Often consisting of start-ups and small-scale partnerships, Digital Health development brings a wealth of new work—jobs that did not exist previously—to the market.
AI and Smart technology seem sophisticated, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Amazon’s Alexa saw a 1500% increase in third-party developers in 2016, which gave her a host of new features. Using this as an example, we can’t even begin to guess how far Digital Health will take AI and Smart Technology as concepts. For the inventive developer with an eye for medical design, Digital Health may be the answer to getting a foot in the door.
Unlike in traditional industries, in an emerging field the corporate hierarchies have yet to establish themselves. In fact, large corporations—like IBM and Google—have only recently considered purchasing AI start-ups to virtualize their own health apps. All this means that now is the perfect time to put yourself in the driver’s seat.
Innovations in Digital Healthcare
As we have said before, Digital Health is ever-growing and, therefore, ever-changing. RockHealth, a support network for MedTech startups, has ranked the best developers, as well as the most cutting-edge technologies. The following are especially eye-catching:
- ReCIVA, a breathalyser that predicts diagnoses.
- EverlyWell, a startup that gives comprehensive access to health information, and allows patients to order lab tests from home.
- Wellist, a program that draws upon the diversity of patients to improve care quality.
One specific field seems to profit especially well from digital healthcare innovations: Female Health Technology. For those interested in this: we delve deeper into this topic in our dedicated feature on Fem Tech.
Digital Health Careers and Job Opportunities
The fascinating thing about Digital Health is that it has two sides: the digital and the medical. As such, it opens the door for job seekers of all sorts, putting a priority on STEM majors and future medical professionals. If we follow current patterns, it looks like these fields and digital health jobs will be in high demand within the next five years:
- App developer
- Robotics technician
- Coding linguist
- Cybersecurity specialist
- IT specialist
- Concierge doctor
- Drone technician
- Sales and marketing
The Digital Health landscape is ever-changing and ever-growing. We will see an increase in digital health jobs and opportunities for digital health careers. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date on the latest Digital Health news, as the story unfolds.