The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technology in healthcare, unleashing the next wave of innovation within the sector.
- The pandemic’s impact on healthcare
- Challenging times call for remarkable innovations
- Visions and predictions for the healthcare sector
- Closing thoughts
With the global vaccination process now well underway, the time has come to start preparing for the post-pandemic period. The healthcare sector is set to play a key role in ending the pandemic once and for all and restoring a sense of normalcy to our lives. However, to make this possible, the sector will have to undergo a digital transformation of its own, unleashing the next wave of healthcare innovation that will reshape the future of patient care.
The pandemic’s impact on healthcare
Since the COVID-19 pandemic is primarily a health crisis, it’s quite understandable that its impact would be particularly pronounced in the healthcare sector. As advances in modern medicine enabled us to significantly expand the human lifespan, chronic conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases became the primary focus of our healthcare systems, pushing concern about pandemics into the background. Consequently, once a pandemic did eventually break out, healthcare institutions found themselves overwhelmed with the sudden influx of new patients, which threatened to break down the entire system. Furthermore, with the novel coronavirus now a top priority, many other lifesaving procedures were postponed or cancelled, including organ transplants, cancer treatments, and brain surgeries. In the United States, for instance, nearly half of all patients had to put off or forego medical care altogether due to the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has also brought about numerous short- and long-term structural changes in the healthcare sector and significantly accelerated its digital transformation. According to The Digital Health – Global Market Trajectory & Analytics report published by ResearchAndMarkets.com, the number of online consultations grew by 350 per cent since the start of the pandemic, while the number of online pharmacy sales experienced an even larger, 600-per cent increase. To respond adequately to this obvious shift in preferences and ensure that all patients receive the care they need, healthcare institutions have been forced to adopt innovative solutions like telemedicine, remote patient monitoring, robotics, AI-powered chatbots, and predictive analytics. As a result, the report further predicts that the global digital health market will exceed $500 billion by 2027. This digital transformation will also encompass healthcare education, which will increasingly rely on VR technology to immerse students in various real-life scenarios and help them prepare for the real thing.
Challenging times call for remarkable innovations
If there’s one good thing to come out of the pandemic, it’s that it has sparked a new wave of innovation across sectors, including healthcare.
Robotic healthcare workers
When you have a disease as contagious as COVID-19, even the simple act of caring for a patient can put healthcare workers at risk. To address this problem and minimise their chances of contracting the virus, a team of researchers from MIT, Boston Dynamics, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital have developed a robot that allows them to measure a patient’s vital signs from a safe distance. The robot in question is actually a modified version of the Spot robot developed by Boston Dynamics, which is equipped with four cameras that allow it to measure skin temperature, breathing rate, pulse rate, and blood oxygen saturation remotely. “In robotics, one of our goals is to use automation and robotic technology to remove people from dangerous jobs,” explains Henwei Huang, an MIT postdoc. “We thought it should be possible for us to use a robot to remove the health care worker from the risk of directly exposing themselves to the patient.”
Virtual waiting rooms
Since the start of the pandemic, many patients have postponed their visits to the doctor’s office for fear of being exposed to the virus while sitting in the waiting room surrounded by other patients. To minimise contact between their patients, the Phoenix-based Banner Health launched virtual waiting rooms that will allow patients to accomplish tasks like checking in or filling out paperwork through chatbots. “The healthcare industry must rapidly innovate in order to ensure all patients can see their doctors again through safe, private, and convenient channels,” says Greg Johnsen, CEO at LifeLink, the technology company that collaborated with Banner Health on this project. “Like the changes we are seeing in retail, healthcare providers need to adapt, and the waiting room experience is one area that will need to change.”
AI-powered patient monitoring
The UK-based digital healthcare company Isansys Lifecare recently unveiled an advanced patient monitoring system called the Patient Status Engine (PSE), which combines sensors, connectivity, and clinical AI to automatically capture raw patient data and turn it into “real-time predictive clinical insight.” This innovative solution also features Early Warning Scores that provide healthcare professionals with alerts about changes in a patient’s health status and enables them to respond in a timely manner. The PSE allows healthcare institutions to significantly increase their efficiency, make better clinical decisions, and reduce the length of stay in hospital.
Visions and predictions for the healthcare sector
To address challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the healthcare sector is increasingly turning to digital technology. “The intersection between digital technology and healthcare experiences has certainly accelerated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and leading the future of care will demand rethinking core assumptions about the intersection of people and technology,” says Dr. Kaveh Safavi, a senior managing director in Accenture’s Health practice. “People’s perceptions of and relationships with technology are changing, and to adapt, healthcare payers and providers need to redesign digital experiences.”
Jeroen Tas, chief innovation & strategy officer at Philips, is likewise of the opinion that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technology within healthcare. “In the near future, we could see digital services closing the loop between consultations and the dispatch of care or prescription drugs, drones as vehicles for getting drugs to patients, and robots disinfecting contaminated areas. Apps and chatbots that act as symptom checkers and provide up-to-the-minute travel and infection control advice. Medical wearables that monitor patients at home. 5G-enabled cameras that check for symptoms in seconds,” explains Tas.
AR and VR solutions in particular are widely touted as the future of education. “Thanks to the technological maturity, more affordable prices, a wider range of content providers, and numerous successful implementations, AR and VR solutions have proven their value and are increasingly established in healthcare training and education, pre-operation and treatment planning, and data/3D model visualisation use cases,” says Eleftheria Kouri, AR/VR Research Analyst at ABI Research. “At the current stage of the market, AR and VR solutions are considered reliable and cost-effective digital tools for high-value use cases in healthcare. At the same time, the introduction of AR elements in telehealth services is a promising and natural use case that can add value and clarity for users and fill in gaps exposed today with the difficulty of in-person visits.”
The futurist Richard van Hooijdonk agrees that the future of healthcare will be shaped by digital technologies. Rather than continuing to rely on the reactive approach to medicine, we will increasingly move towards preventative healthcare, allowing us to detect early signs of disease and take action before it’s too late. Artificial intelligence, robotics, and nanotechnology will all take on a more prominent role in healthcare, helping us devise more effective treatments and significantly improve patient outcomes. And with further advances in 3D printing, it may not be long before we are able to 3D print entire human organs, thus putting an end to organ transplant waiting lists.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the world’s healthcare sector. To ensure that all patients continue to receive the care they need without being exposed to the virus, healthcare institutions around the world have been forced to embrace innovative technological solutions like robotic carers, advanced patient monitoring platforms, and virtual waiting rooms. Artificial intelligence, AR/VR, 3D printing, and nanotechnology are also seeing a more widespread acceptance in the healthcare sector, forever changing the way we administer and receive healthcare.