Satnavs. Facial recognition. The Cloud. FinTech.
I slip words like these into conversations with the same ease as the next person. New technology has become part of our bread-and-butter vocabulary, without question marks.
Health tech, on the other hand – that feels a bit more niche. Or it did, until Covid-19 made us sit up and pay attention.
Eight months into the pandemic, nobody needs a lecture on the importance of health tech; it’s staring us in the face. But health tech didn’t emerge on-the-fly in response to the Covid crisis. It’s been around for a long time.
And it’s big business. In 2017, Forbes valued the digital healthcare industry at an astounding $25 billion globally. They predicted that number will skyrocket above $379 billion by 2024.
We all know that health tech helps predict the spread of diseases, track pandemic outbreaks, and contain them. But there are lots of other new developments in the future of healthcare that will change the way we live.
And these developments are no longer on the horizon; they have fully arrived.
Get ready for…
Ok, you’ve already got this one. Fitness trackers (like FitBits) are health wearables. I like knowing that I’ve put in my 10.000 steps. But other types of knowledge about what’s happening in our bodies can be more vital. For some people, it’s their heart rate; for others, their blood pressure, or their oxygen supply.
Continuously measuring these things makes a huge difference for people with chronic conditions. And these wearables don’t just make the invisible visible; they also act as a kind of coach. They empower wearers to become active participants in managing their health condition. Immediate feedback from a wearable can change habits; habits can change health; and health saves lives.
Wearables are particularly relevant in the time of Covid-19. But they will continue to be so well beyond it, as part of a bigger drive towards preventative or pro-active health care.
3D-printing technology still sounds like sci-fi to me. But it’s here, and it’s a quiet revolution in healthcare. Technology like this can create everything from personalized prosthetics to bio-tissues and blood vessels, at a fraction of the past cost. It transforms organ transplants and tissue repair. It can even produce realistic skin grafts for burn victims.
In 2019, researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, managed to develop a method for printing 3D-print living skin, along with blood vessels.
Blockchain for electronic healthcare records
Blockchain and the future of healthcare? Not obvious at first. But think of electronic health records, and how important it is to keep those accurate and safe.
Blockchain technology can play a key role in ensuring that medical records are 100% accurate. It also makes them significantly harder to hack. Conflicting information is automatically detected, thanks to a decentralised network of computers. And blockchain not only helps prevent data breaches; it also cuts costs.
So it’s no wonder that many health and pharmaceutical companies are investing in blockchain technology. A recent report put the blockchain-health market at $890.5 million by 2023.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a key driver in health tech. We already see it in chatbots and virtual health assistants that act as diagnostic tools, and even as therapists.
But the real power of AI becomes clear in areas like precision medicine. In the past, many cancer patients received cookie-cutter treatments with high failure rates. Because of AI, we now have more personalised treatments, based on individual genetics and lifestyle factors, amongst other things.
AI also plays a big role in the discovery of new drugs and the development of vaccines. That’s a Bigger Deal Than Ever Before in the Covid pandemic.
And finally, one of the things AI is exceptionally good at is Pattern Recognition. That means it can analyse large amounts of cancer images that help recognise and diagnose cancer. One famous example of this is Google’s DeepMind, which created an AI for breast cancer analysis. The algorithm outperformed human radiologists on pre-selected data sets to identify breast cancer, on average by 11.5%.
The market value of AI for healthcare worldwide? $34 billion by 2025.
Most of us are already familiar with this technology. Immersing yourself in a simulated environment is fun. But it can also be a therapeutic tool. For instance, VR environments help train people to deal with mental health triggers safely. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Bipolar Disorder. Covid-related Stress and Anxiety are now being treated this way.
The training potential of VR is – well, awesome. Take surgeons, for instance. A recent Harvard Business Review study showed that VR-trained surgeons had a 230% boost in their overall performance. Compared to their traditionally-trained counterparts, they were both faster and more accurate. At Case Western Reserve University, students learn via a VR-based HoloAnatomy app. This offers detailed and precise experience without the need for real bodies.
Health tech keeps evolving, and the UK is in a strong position to drive it forward. It has some outstanding health tech companies, a powerful research base, and a solid scientific reputation.
And it also has the NHS, of course. The world’s largest healthcare system, can be an engine for innovation that could save lives.