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Technology and the future of healthcare

As technology comes to know us well, health diagnosis and treatments will become even more personalised. How would you feel if a piece of technology could detect your level of risk to certain conditions?  Would you welcome that same piece of technology if it could prompt you on actions and lifestyle choices to take to prevent future complications? We're not there yet, but technology has the potential to form new personalised solutions to healthcare.

However, the story of technology and personalised medicine is not new. Clinicians have been tailoring care to patients' individual needs for decades; think about organ transplants, blood transfusions and allergy therapies. Sure these are now considered “low-tech” therapies, but they are all valid examples of injecting technology into the system.  

Recently, healthcare innovation has been synonymous with digitisation or transforming something analogue into something digital - for example, digital prescriptions.  But the next chapter in this story promises to be an exciting one, called eHealth. 

The World Health Organisation defines eHealth as: “the secure use of information and communications technologies in support of health and health-related fields, including healthcare services and processes, prevention, health surveillance, treatment, health literature and health education, knowledge and research.”  eHealth can help support our struggling healthcare systems but also cut costs and represent a novel market with a high sales potential. 

This piece will cover market and consumer trends in the healthcare sector, the growth of a few selected areas, and discuss what lies ahead for companies working in this dynamic space.  To conclude, we will explore what healthcare might look like in the near future. 

Let’s start with the UK.

Spending on healthcare in the UK has been steadily growing for the past 20 years. 

Healthcare spending in the UK is high and comparable to other developed European countries.  Given that 30% of UK seniors suffer from at least 3 chronic conditions (with another 25% suffering from 2 conditions), it is unlikely that these trends and figures will reverse anytime soon. 

The digital revolution has begun

In July, the New York Times ran a story on how public health officials in Houston were struggling to keep up with the coronavirus outbreak. Interestingly, the focus was not on the disease but rather the office fax machine.  With over 40,000 cases and many doctors faxing coronavirus tests to the county’s health department, you can imagine the avalanche of white paper inundating the office. This is not only a nuisance to medical staff, who then need to put the paper in an envelope and physically walk it to the epidemiology department. But it also shows us the inevitable issues that will occur when you are still running your business on fax machines.  It is only a matter of time before mistakes happen and your business becomes overwhelmed and no longer able to keep up.

Another similar event happened in Washington State, where 25 members of the National Guard were called to assist with manual data entry for results not reported electronically. Once again, due to many of their medical reports being sent by mail (or fax). 

Recent trends and offers

In the UK, the market for eHealth apps and wearables has grown massively. The main winners here are fitness apps, nutritional apps, and smartwatches.

These findings serve as a revelation of a shift in consumer preferences. Consumers are becoming more interested in analysing their physical activity and increasingly realise the benefits of tracking health indicators.  This consumer enthusiasm is also reflected in the demand for tools that help motivate to reach fitness goals. 

The UK market for fitness Apps and Wearables is already >USD 610m and has been growing at a healthy compound annual growth rate of 6% (Source: Statista Digital Market outlook 2018).

The importance of technology to improve health and lifestyle

One company doing something inspiring to help people lead healthier lives is one of our partners, Reed Wellbeing 

Reed Wellbeing has a range of lifestyle services that help people to improve their health. They provide easy-to-access, effective interventions that address a range of lifestyle issues—working with both the public sector, providing health & wellbeing services for the NHS and local governments, and supporting employers and individuals. Since 2015, 112,000 people have benefited from the services they provide.

Technology plays an essential role in ensuring these services reach the people who need them most. This has been particularly relevant during the past few months. Reed Wellbeing utilises technology to reach its participants, which has enabled them to continue to provide their services throughout the pandemic. Their aim as a business is to harness the learnings from the pandemic period to ensure they can use technology to its full potential, even when we return to a more ‘normal’ world.

They have recently developed a fully digital health check product. The Wellbeing Check enables people to complete a holistic assessment of their health & wellbeing, including their physical, emotional, social, and financial wellbeing. Through experience, they have found that, with so much talk about health & wellbeing in the public domain, people often find it difficult to know where to begin. This assessment helps people identify where their wellbeing can be impacted most by making some simple, positive changes to their lifestyle. The Wellbeing Check is fully digital, meaning that employees can complete it from any internet-enabled device – which is a perfect example of how we believe technology can widen the reach of our important services.

Both of our organisations strongly believe that the importance of technology in providing health & wellbeing services will only grow into the future. It is something we are looking to embrace and focus upon future product developments.

“Technology enables us to develop products and services to reach as many people as possible and support them to improve their health and wellbeing. It forms the centre of our current and future development plans.”

Bradley Ebsworth-Willis, Associate Director of Service Development

Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) is a growing market

Another area of eHealth showing great promise is AAL. This includes gadgets that help people manage their household activities on their own. Generally, these have focused on the elderly, people who have special needs, or people who for some reason need monitoring (children, the chronically ill, etc.).  Although relatively a small market in the UK, USD 23m back in 2017, it is projected to increase to USD 186m by 2022.  This is eclipsed by the projected market size in the US, which reaches USD 1,990 by 2022 (Source: Statista Digital Market outlook 2018). 

As the possibilities and benefits of SmartHomes becomes clearer, AAL devices will be more of a typical 'fixture' in our homes.  Homes will have emergency buttons to notify first responders and pressure sensors in the floor to detect whether a person has fallen. This will then automatically alert a family member or emergency services. Research shows that all of these areas have incredible growth potential.

Robots strike again

When talking about gadgets and assisted living, robots come into play yet again. The technology behind Robotics and AI has advanced to a stage that can amplify human potential and transform the SmartHome (and assisted living) industry.  

Robotic vacuum cleaners and personal digital assistants (think Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant) are no longer out of the ordinary. These types of AI-powered devices will continue to become more commonplace and help us with tasks which until now, we believed would require human interaction.  Ten years ago, who would have thought that you could “talk” to your home to turn on the music, turn off the lights or send your partner a shopping list via text, all without lifting a finger? 

In healthcare, these new gadgets could remind us to take our medication, attend an upcoming doctor’s appointment and perhaps even arrange the transportation to get us there.  It is also entirely possible that they could automatically order a refill of prescriptions for chronic conditions and organise for these to be delivered to our homes. These features would help with preventive medicine and health management, something especially important with an ageing population. 

A note of caution

“We know for a fact that healthcare organisations are the most targeted [by ransomware and hacks]”  Maya Levine, a security engineer at Check Point Software Technologies recently noted.

The reason is both simple and terrible, the data these organisations have is incredibly sensitive, and these attacks cause tremendous disruption to their business. When you layer that with the fact that globally, hospitals, medical facilities, and healthcare systems are notoriously underfunded (especially when talking about IT), it is easy to understand the magnitude of the problem. 

A common theme which we observe across industries, but that is particularly prevalent in this sector, is the rush to “buy the solution”. In healthcare, this translates into companies falling for tech vendors who promise to assess their security risks but actually only provide them with a costly risk assessment that fails to deliver any real benefit. This sort of tactic wastes precious resources without adding material value to the organisation. 

Security advice to healthcare providers (and companies concerned with data protection)

Before trying to “buy your way out” of a problem, we always recommend an internal evaluation of the business needs that will identify any existing vulnerabilities. 

A quick list of must-haves to any company dealing with sensitive data is:

  • adopt password managers

  • employ, regular, cloud-based backups

  • require two-factor authentication

  • ensure security defences are up to date (anti-virus, firewalls, VPN)

  • hire ethical hackers to perform a penetration test to identify flaws and weaknesses in existing systems 

  • teach staff about cyber hygiene

  • Update old and unsecure systems (hardware, servers, software, systems)

But how? Where to start?

The first step is to assess the existing risks, vulnerabilities and gaps in technical know-how. It is essential to engage with an external tech vendor committed to creating a long-term partnership with you.  Be selective about which vendors are keeping on top of the latest technologies (and threats), as they will bring these learnings back to your business with actionable strategies that limit future risks.

If data security is not a concern, then engaging with a tech company to help with the digitalisation of manual processes and digital technologies will help your business differentiate and bring new market offers. It can become your port of entry into this exciting world where technology meets health.