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Exciting advances of digital technology in healthcare

At CHC we like to keep our ear to the ground, we also like to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation within healthcare. With this in mind, I recently attended an event called ‘The Future of Digital Healthcare’. Run by DSMLF in collaboration with Bupa, it was a day packed with interesting presentations and discussions about the role digital technology has within healthcare.

The term ‘digital healthcare’ is thrown around quite a lot within the industry, it is one of those few trends which has both a huge impact and the potential to mediate long-term change – a little like juicing to the weight loss industry, or high intensity interval training (HIIT) to dedicated gym-goers used to slogging it out for hours on a treadmill. But what does digital healthcare actually mean? It is an upcoming discipline, encompassing the use of information and communication technologies to help address the health problems and challenges faced by patients, as well as to promote health and wellbeing.

What, though, do all these digital innovations actually mean for patients around the world? One of the keynote speakers at the event, Dr Paul Zollinger-Read (CMO, Bupa), summarised this quite aptly: healthcare has previously largely been structured around institutions, but digital is enabling us to switch focus to the individual. In addition, digital technologies are helping to mediate the progression from treatment to prevention focused healthcare.

The event focused on key areas within healthcare where digital technologies are having an impact:

3D printingthere is huge potential for various applications within healthcare, some of which are already being met and others which are set to evolve. Scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have genetically transformed skin cells into heart cells and used them to 3D print mini-organs that beat just like your heart. The aim is to simulate bodily systems by microfluidically linking up miniature organs.

IBM Watson for Oncology– a technology platform that has the ability to analyse a patient’s medical information against a vast array of data and expertise to provide evidence based treatment options. The future applications of this technology, for example in drug discovery, are endless.

Wearable technology – thanks to the likes of Fitbit and Jawbone, wearable tech and the apps that interact with them are one of the leading technologies giving the patient/wearer greater control over their internal and external health. This was emphasised during the event by Alex Heaton, Marketing Director at LiveSmart, an evidence based website and app aiming to holistically track and map the user’s health over time. The standard service allows you to give blood using a simple kit and for £99 they conduct 34 blood tests, ranging from cholesterol profiling to vitamin D deficiency testing. They then collect further data from other apps and wearable tech, for example Fitbit, to give the user information on their life style and crucially, their inner health.

The afternoon sessions focused a little more on digital start-ups looking to make an impact in the healthcare industry, especially those using apps. Attendees were quick to comment on the large number available and the fact that they are often unregulated, which can be confusing for doctors, patients and the public alike.The fact that the FDA, NICE and other regulatory bodies around the world are beginning to regulate and provide guidelines may help to remedy this. However, as with apps in other areas, the good ones tend to stick. A few interesting start-ups explained their businesses on the day, the following stood out for me:

Sleepio: digital sleep improvement programme, they have now developed an evidence based app which uses cognitive behavioural therapy.

Babylon: personal healthcare on your mobile, their aim is to make healthcare accessible and affordable to anyone, anywhere, at any time

 

For the inquisitive mind, there are a huge number of other possibilities and innovations on the horizon, for example:

  • Smart contact lens – Google X is developing a smart contact lens, built to measure glucose in tears continuously using a wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor. The hope is that this could someday lead to a new way for people with diabetes to manage their disease
  • Smart earbudswearable technology that tracks your heart rate and other health metrics while you listen to music

So, are these digital innovations something we should whole heartedly embrace or an area where we should continue to proceed with caution? Perhaps it is a bit of both.

There is no doubt that, compared to other industries, healthcare is a little behind in terms of uptake of digital technology. This isn’t really surprising. Regulations within healthcare are, quite rightly, extremely strict; you only have to consider the consequences of a poorly regulated system. However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace the endless possibilities this area can offer and critically, is it ever successful to resist change?

At CHC we would say not, change allows innovation and mediates scientific advances that may help people live longer healthier lives.