In our series on transformative health, we’re examining how modern healthcare is changing significantly. Today, we’ll look at the second aspect to this: the kinds of new products both emerging from and driving this transformation.
The most exciting and significant developments we’re seeing in healthcare at the moment all involve the transformative use of technology.
We’re now used to having tech touch almost all areas of life: few of us still resist the lure of smartphones which allow us to connect with just one click to not just our networks but a world’s-worth of information, wherever we are.
Now it’s more than that, as our bodies are “connected” too; through phones or wearable devices with inbuilt sensors for things like movement and heat – meaning we can monitor and record steps, heart rate, sleep patterns… and using apps, try and learn from and change our behaviour to become healthier individuals.
Mhealth is the umbrella term for the use of mobile phones and other wireless tech in healthcare. Everything from wearables, nearables, apps and social communities. It’s a major phenomenon: according to a 2016 report from PWC, health is now the no.1 reason for consumer wearables.
Mhealth is not just about consumers using wearables for fitness; but also the digitisation, automation and connection of personal medical devices, such as blood pressure monitors, to collect patient data. Even pills can now be connected – for example, smart pills are being devised which can report on whether medicines are taken and digested as they should be.
The social dimension is also important: reaching out to our social networks with our latest weightloss or fitness milestone allows us to receive encouragement or connect with others in a similar condition. Peer-to-peer technology is being used amongst healthcare professionals too. For example, an app can enable doctors in refugee camps to share images of a patient’s condition and invite comment and support from experts around the world.
In hospitals, instant messaging tools are enabling medics to quickly communicate with partner professionals in different departments – calling them up to attend quickly if needed or just to ensure that on-the-spot decisions are made with a more holistic knowledge of a patient’s condition or treatment history.
This focus on connectivity is also helping to accelerate insight across the industry. For instance, tools like IBM Watson will allow medics to tap into the experiences of other medics and data on thousands of their patients around the world – sharing best practice and intelligence to improve healthcare.
Another important aspect of mhealth is its ability to help vulnerable individuals. Families of Alzheimer’s sufferers can now track “wandering” loved ones, with sensors in shoes or similar, which can relieve a huge worry. Generally, vulnerable elderly individuals are able to prolong their independence through assistive tech such as movement sensors or remote body vitals monitoring. This can help cut the length of a hospital stay or simply allow them to remain in their own home longer, as relatives or health workers are alerted to reach them quickly in an emergency. Since we’re facing a demographic timebomb, finding ways to effectively and efficiently manage the care of our parents and grandparents is significant: not just to individuals but to society as a whole.
The personalisation of medicine is also driving development, with the growing acknowledgement that one size doesn’t fit all. A mammoth 94% of biopharma companies are investing in this area, with good reason. Personalising care based on genetics and an individual’s health information has the potential to generate new therapies that may radically improve outcomes.
Surprisingly, approximately 30-40% of patients take drugs for which the adverse effects outweigh the benefits. Targeted therapies paired with genetic diagnostic tests help physicians to select an optimal treatment the first time, avoiding a more risky and costly “trial and error” approach.
We’re also witnessing the ability of personal medical monitoring devices to follow an individual’s trend rather than spot check for vital signs like blood sugar. This means patients can be medicated based on their own version of normal, rather than the population’s norm – enabling more effective and accurate treatment. Devices like Abbott’s Freestyle Libre (video) track and report against an individual’s “normal” glucose levels.
3D printing is a part of this bespoke approach too, delivering replacement therapies tailored exactly to the patient through the ‘print on demand’ nature of 3D printing. Previously, the most “personalised” solutions were based on a wide range of sizes, often creating an imperfect fit – whether for replacement limbs, cataract lenses or dental implants.
An exceptional area of transformative health, although we’re not quite in the “Robocop” cyborg era yet, are the prosthetic solutions that improve on humans. The controversy over whether Oscar Pretorius should take part in the 2012 Olympics is an obvious example – his carbon-fibre flex-foot blades were designed by Össur to not just replicate human-movement, but that of the fastest mammals on earth – cheetahs. Kids who are missing limbs can now avoid stigma and wow their friends with their “light sabre” light up, 3D printed, bionic arm (from Open Bionics).
It’s not just replacement limbs: various companies have been inventing devices which improve sight; particularly Google’s Verily, in partnership with Novartis. Pills that can make you temporarily “smarter” already exist. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology is working on magnifying contact lenses that can zoom in and out by winking – telescopic vision.
With connected technology, personalised medical care and products designed to improve humans, transformative health is shifting the way healthcare is being conceived and delivered. Next time, we take a look at how the industry is restructuring itself to create innovation, differently.
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