The emerging technologies that are transforming healthcare

Healthcare leaders are looking to digital solutions to remodel healthcare provision in the same way the internet has already transformed society.

The explosion in information technology in the past 40 years has left few areas of our lives untouched so it is no surprise medicine and healthcare technology is at the forefront of these innovations.

But what are the biggest emerging healthcare technology trends already impacting our lives? We explore some of the trends we think you'll be hearing more about.

Big data

Anyone who has downloaded the Zoe Covid-19 symptom study app - and more than four million people in the UK have - is contributing their personal information daily to support research into coronavirus.

'Big data' refers to vast amounts of digitally stored data that's too large or complex for traditional technology to analyse. With the current pandemic, for example, advances in personalised predictive data science and machine learning has allowed scientists to combine information people have given to the app with other data (NHS and global). From this, scientists are unpicking why Covid-19 affects people so differently. While some have mild symptoms, others become very seriously ill. After just four months, researchers can now:

  • Predict whether someone is likely to have Covid-19, even without a test.
  • Understand the risk factors for the virus far better. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, gut health, genetics, even social factors such as ethnicity and poverty have now been shown to have a role.

What are the implications for big data in healthcare?

One of the biggest benefits, as the Zoe Covid-9 app has shown, is that, paradoxically, huge amounts of anonymised data can lead to targeted, personalised care. In What is Big data in healthcare?, technology expert Dr Russell Richmond says healthcare providers will have more complete and detailed patient and population data. This will allow them to extrapolate whether a patient is likely to respond to a specific treatment, or even identify at-risk patients in time to prevent illness before it starts.

Dr Richmond explains: "More information yields more granular diagnosis, which creates the opportunity for more precise treatment."

But big data is not without its issues - privacy and security issues are important hurdles to be overcome. Which is where our next big emerging trend comes in...

Blockchain technology

In 5 emerging technologies that will change healthcare, blockchain technology is proposed as one solution to the issues hindering healthcare's digital transformation.

Blockchains are absolutely secure so that once information is added, it cannot be altered. This makes this tech a "major opportunity to collect and share public health data". Author João Bocas, a top 100 global digital health influencer, explains why: "Permissioned blockchains can enhance the security within healthcare organisations, protecting sensitive data from external threats and attacks by using multiple encrypted blocks, rather than having one single database."

Internet of things

Do you own a Fitbit or Apple Watch? If so, you are already part of the internet of things (IoT) healthcare revolution. IoT devices that monitor your health are increasingly innovative - now moving to predict the onset of preventable disease (diabetes or heart disease for example). This round-the-clock data has the potential to support public health providers globally, including the UK's NHS. As Norman Lamb (the-then MP and chair of the Science and Technology Committee), says in the foreword to a 2018 research paper "Thinking on its own: AI in the NHS" (reported by the InternetofBusiness.com):

"We are on the brink of a major transformation in the way we diagnose, treat, and even prevent ill health. Whether it is wearable devices, AI surgical robots, or AI algorithms that can detect certain conditions with unprecedented speed and accuracy, these advances have the potential to propel the health and social care system into the 21st century – improving care both in the hospital and at home, and making much more efficient use of resources."

3D printing and bioprinting in healthcare

While the manufacture of precision, personalised prosthetics and dental implants are widely publicised, 3D bioprinting is less well known. It is this technology that is now being used to create living human cells or tissue for use in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering and personalised pharmaceuticals.

Technology for health, for all

Perhaps the biggest promise of the new, mass technologies that are driving treatment and care is a step up from the "one size fits all" approach that has served the for so long.

New approaches to manage patients’ health and targeted therapies suggest that for healthcare providers worldwide, including the UK's NHS, the question is not whether they should follow this path but more how society can ensure everyone benefits from it, irrespective of their illness, where they live or how their care is provided.

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