By Dr Mishal Al Kasimi
Despite ongoing security and privacy fears, this is very much a golden age for technology - and healthcare is already benefitting from it
Today’s world is producing a staggering amount of information. In the last few years, we’ve seen the processing power to harness this data finally begin to catch up.
Phones are more powerful than computers were just a couple of decades ago, and with internet usage now widespread around the world, we have constant access to information we couldn’t have dreamed of just a few short years ago.
We have also never been more willing to share personal information with others, resulting in even the most traditional of industries being forced to look at their practices and adapt for the new world we live in.
It’s only natural that healthcare would follow suit. While healthcare has constantly tried to adopt new techniques and develop medicines to deal with diseases, the way we administer these treatments had seen relatively little change.
Patients still wait endlessly to see their doctors, who then proceed to prick and prod them for various tests. Doctors have always had to rely on the memory (and to some extent, the honesty) of their patients, and patients in turn have had almost no control over their own medical data.
But smarter technology is changing all that in ways we couldn’t imagine, and it boils down to one reason: data.
Technology is now being wielded in innovative ways to improve the overall experience for patients and doctors alike. Data is at the heart of this, allowing healthcare providers to simplify and even enhance the patient’s experience while also helping doctors improve the quality of service they can provide, with better outcomes.
With smartphones and wearables, patients are now tracking and sharing more medically relevant information than ever before. This rise of smarter devices will herald a new age of data collection and swifter solutions.
Activity-tracking devices and apps, for instance, now monitor body vitals, and have become almost status symbols, with the entire process of maintaining a healthy lifestyle even becoming gamified. Insurance providers have started to leverage this trend, too, with insurers offering heavily discounted smart watches to improve policyholders’ heath monitoring and activity.
It is predicted that by 2020, the number of connected wearable devices worldwide will reach a staggering 830 million, which is up from the 325 million devices currently in use, according to Statista. In the UAE alone, the wearable sensors market is expected to increase to almost AED14.6m by the end of this year.
The more access given to individual information, the easier it will be to track health trends on a larger level. This extreme granularity of data will help us get a more holistic picture of the population, understanding their habits, lifestyle and overall health.
Smarter AI-enabled computers could then leverage that data to identify key trends and triggers, allowing for healthcare providers to be more proactive in their treatments. They would also allow hospitals to better plan and manage the patient experience, resulting in shorter wait-times and more efficient treatment.
As an example of how access to information can help better healthcare, Omada Health, a digital therapeutics firm, leveraged digital technology to help tackle diabetes. Some 120,000 pre-diabetics participated in a programme to test their prevention initiative. Omada created a 16-week online behavioural-counselling curriculum that included modules on nutrition and physical activity, as well as strategies to minimise stress.
The course was extremely effective because of the focus on digitising standard diabetes prevention programmes, ensuring that the experience was patient-centric and making sure to focus on delivering results.
Technology has also given us better tools. For instance, surgery robots are now becoming more common, assisting doctors with delicate operations and reducing the recovery time of patients. In fact, robot-assisted surgery is making such major steps forward that the industry is expected to have an annual value of $40bn by 2026.
Improved technology has also allowed doctors to analyse sweat for molecular biomarkers, replacing the need for more invasive blood tests.
With smarter AI and an increasing amount of data, there is an increase in the quality of treatment available. Earlier this year, a team of researchers from the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford developed an AI diagnostics system that is more accurate than doctors at diagnosing heart disease. Not only could innovations like these save more lives, they could also considerably reduce costs. By reducing inefficiencies and excessive testing, more money could be spent on delivering better, and earlier, treatment.
The UAE is also venturing into a new space – quite literally. Earlier this year, during Arab Health 2018, the Ministry of Health and Prevention announced its plans to build the first Emirates Space Hospital to treat astronauts using nanotechnology. Aligned to the UAE Centennial 2071 and the National Space Programme, this new space hospital is the ideal example of the future of telemedicine.
It’s clear that the potential for a new healthcare system is immense. However, mainstream adoption is still a few years away, and these services may stay out of reach of the masses until we hit economies of scale. However, as individuals, we can still do our bit. Leveraging commercial apps and devices to get a better understanding of our behaviour could help us make healthier decisions regarding our diet and activity programmes.
You can also choose a healthcare provider that focuses on putting the patient experience first, ensuring that you have access to innovative solutions that give you more control over your treatment. A good provider can also collect your data and structure it regularly, ensuring that they are able to analyse it effectively, translating it to better treatment for you and your family.
With technology rapidly developing, it’s only a matter of time before we have a golden age of healthcare. By making more informed decisions today, we can help to usher in a better tomorrow sooner rather than later.