The healthcare industry has always been actively embracing technology advancements to improve patient care and treatments. Breakthrough technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality, nanotechnology, 3D printing, and many others have been enabling the healthcare industry to promptly handle sensitive situations, make a better diagnosis, expedite drug discovery, and predict outbreaks of contagious diseases.
Though 2020 has been a year of unforeseen challenges for the healthcare industry due to the advent of COVID-19, enabling technologies like data science, AI, machine learning, deep learning, etc, have been helping the industry and governments to strategically combat the deadly contagion.
This article highlights the trending technologies in the healthcare industry that will once again revolutionize patient care in 2021.
The applications of AI in the healthcare industry are mind-blowing. According to stats provided by Accenture, using clinical health AI applications the US healthcare economy can save nearly $150 billion by 2026. Some of the key applications of AI in the medical sector include automated image diagnosis, connected machines, robot-assisted surgery, fraud detection, clinical trial participant identifier, dosage error reduction, virtual nursing assistants, drug discovery, information management, clinical decision support, etc.
Further, AI algorithms can outperform doctors in terms of accuracy and speed of diagnosis. For instance, Google’s DeepMind AI outperforms doctors in accurately spotting breast cancer.
The distributed ledger technology (DLT), Blockchain, will impact the healthcare industry significantly in 2021 and the years ahead. Interoperability is one of the main advantages of blockchain in healthcare technology. With digital ledgers, healthcare providers can securely transfer patient records. Further, the peer-to-peer system of Blockchain allows a large number of users to securely access the common ledger. This consequently increases patient’s faith in healthcare providers. As the healthcare industry is constantly focusing on improving data security, portability, and accessibility, there are high expectations from blockchain technology.
The outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus has accelerated the growth and use of telemedicine. As of April 2020, 43.5% of primary care visits used telehealth methods instead of in-person visits (Mobidev). One of the key benefits of telemedicine over in-house patient care is that it greatly reduces the risk of infections between patients and healthcare workers. The growth of telehealth is most likely to continue in the post-COVID-19 era, as people have started witnessing the actual advantages of telehealth during the pandemic days. According to estimates, the value of telehealth is likely to exceed $185.6 bn by 2026 (Mobidev).
Virtual reality (VR) is reshaping the lives of doctors as well as patients. In the coming years, in order to distract or reduce the anxiety of patients during surgeries, doctors can take them to a holiday destination using VR technology. Though virtual reality technology is not a new healthcare trend and is currently underrated, in the future, it will play a crucial role in pain management treatments. For example, in current times, virtual reality headsets are used to distract women from labor pain.
Augmented reality (AR) finds increased application over virtual reality in the healthcare industry. AR provides visual solutions to students and doctors, thereby enabling them to practice and perform virtually. Many life sciences companies are using augmented reality to open up new opportunities in the industry and introduce new therapies to life by combining the physical and virtual worlds.
IoMT – the internet of medical things
In current times, mobile applications and smart devices are playing a crucial role in monitoring and preventing chronic illnesses. The internet of medical things, IoMT, is a combination of telehealth technologies and IoT. IoMT refers to a wide range of devices, including EKG and ECG monitors, wearables, etc. The emerging healthcare trend, IoMT also helps in measuring blood pressure, glucose level, skin temperature, etc.
Genomic and gene editing
Precision or personalised medicine will be greatly revolutionized as breakthroughs in this field will enable doctors to customize therapies or drugs to match the genetic profile of a patient. In fact, the technology was used to construct a ‘lab on a chip’ for rapid detection of COVID-19 infection. Through gene editing, specific traits inherited by new living cells (the new proteins created due to the division of existing cells) can be altered. These traits are known as phenotypes and govern the cell’s ability to withstand illness or injury, longevity, etc. For instance, using techniques like CRISPR – Cas9, scientists have started manipulating these phenotypes to advance the treatment of various killer diseases like cancer, Duchenne muscular Dystrophy, and many others.
A medical tricorder is a medical device that enables consumers to quickly self-diagnose medical conditions and measure the basic vitals. The demand for medical tricorders is increasing significantly as it enables healthcare providers to improve outpatient services and aids in monitoring the patient pool suffering from cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, etc. The global market of medical tricorder is projected to grow at a CAGR of nearly 6.7% between 2017 to 2023 and reach a value of $5.4 billion in 2023 (Medgadget).
Advanced drug development
In the past, the average time taken to develop a drug was 13 years – right from the start of the research to the time the drug enters the market. Consider the current COVID-19 pandemic – the drug development and clinical trials are way faster as compared to the early times of drug development. When only a year of heightened physical and travel restrictions have disrupted normalcy greatly for mankind and set-in motion an economic tailspin, just imagine what would be the case if it took 13 years to develop a drug for the Novel Coronavirus.
Healthcare wearables and sensors
Stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia have become as common as cold and headaches in the digital age. Consequently, the use of wearables and sensors by patients and doctors for various purposes like stress management, sleep monitoring, etc has increased drastically. Using the data collected in sensors and wearables, doctors can improve the accuracy of diagnosis and thereby provide appropriate treatment at the right time. As the lifestyle habits of the general populace have vastly changed due to digitization, people are becoming extra cautious about their health. Therefore, the use of wearables and sensors will continue to increase in the coming years.
The recent advancements in nanotechnology will simplify treatments in the healthcare industry. For instance, companies are now designing nano-pill cameras that can help medical practitioners to clearly study the insides of the human body and provide better treatments to patients. These smart pills will improve with years and nanoparticles will deliver drugs, light, heat, or any other substance to specific cells, say cancer cells.
Three dimensional or 3-D printing helps in creating patient-specific replicas of organs, bones, and blood vessels. Recent advancements in 3-D printing are enabling the healthcare industry in building products that are safer, stronger, lighter, and cost-effective. 3-D printing also helps in building new medical devices and instruments along with affordable prostheses. Instructor at Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, Todd Goldstein, states that by using 3D printed models in 10 to 15% of cases, Northwell Health – one of the largest healthcare providers in New York, can save $1,750,000 annually.
Robotics is one of the fastest-growing technology in the healthcare industry. Several simple yet vital tasks like recording temperature, drawing blood from veins, etc, can now be performed using robots and medical personnel can be relieved from monotonous tasks to concentrate on more important tasks. As a matter of fact, robots are used in the healthcare industry since 1985. The four types of medical robots that are empowering the healthcare industry to improve the standards of patient care are surgical robots, hospital robots, care robots, and exoskeletons. Besides medical practitioners, pharma companies are also employing robots to perform various tasks. For instance, pharmacy robots like McKesson’s ROBOT-Rx can automatically select, process, store, return, and restock medications in a pharmacy.
Healthcare is one of those industries that has greatly benefited from technological advancements during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to UN predictions, by 2025, 65% of the global population will reside in urban areas. As the urban population continues to grow along with the number of new diseases, technologies like AI and data science are becoming an integral part of the healthcare industry. Also, the list of technologies to disrupt the opportunity-rich healthcare industry is anticipated to grow longer in the upcoming decade.
Dr. Siddhartha Dutta