Good is not always better, and better is not always best. The same is true for the healthcare sector, explaining why we are constantly seeing introduction of ideas, better research bases and improved adoptions to ensure an enhanced level of healthcare is provided to the general public.
It is one of these improvements that we see in the adoption of digital health technology to the world of healthcare.
We are now at the stage where digital health is on a rollercoaster of acceptance and inclusion. That makes it important to discuss not only the potential this brings, but causes for concern likewise.
Identifying the Digital Health Technologies
The year is 2019, and it is time for healthcare providers to start going digital, or begin planning their exit from the market.
So that the latter doesn’t happen, a series of digital improvements – some of which are explained below – have now made it into the everyday operational model of these establishments.
1 Mobile Healthcare
The economy is not what it used to be anymore.
Although the time when patients will have to wait on end just to get in touch with a doctor is not fully over, but healthcare consumers are making a call to shift that status. They now want to have their healthcare services provided to them at their convenience.
Or, using the in-term, on-demand!
This is not very surprising seeing as people have increasingly become mobile in different aspects of their lives over the course of the past decade alone. To buttress this point, the gig economy is doing so well, and they have started to make up a significant portion of the workforce.
Thus, doctors need to get mobile too, becoming on-demand health providers so that they can better meet the needs of patients who need such dedicated services.
2 Big Data & AI
As the name implies, this is a really huge body of data which has to be sifted through to get the important trends and analytics from all the noise out there. That said, big data can be obtained in different ways and forms – from social media, ecommerce and online transactions to connected devices (more on this later).
On the obtainment of big data, yet another piece of digital technology comes to the fore – Artificial Intelligence.
Due to the sheer volume of the data we are dealing with here, it becomes almost impossible for a human to accurately analyze and map out relevant information without making costly errors. That is not to mention not being able to produce relevant results in record time too.
AI steps in to make that happen. On analysis, the healthcare provider stands to gain:
- Reduced medication errors – Medical errors cause a lot of deaths yearly, and medication errors are not left out either. With such a large body of data at the algorithm’s disposal, automatic flagging of wrong prescriptions in line with a patient’s condition becomes possible. This alerts the provider to such inconsistencies, helping them fix the issue before it ever becomes a problem.
- Improved preventive care – There is no gainsaying that a lot of chronic medical conditions could have been nipped in the bud if they were discovered earlier. This is true for cancers, tumors, diabetes, and the likes. Trends in the analyzed data can quickly alert physicians to the possible development of chronic conditions, spurring them to eradicate such issues before they become a problem.
- Staffing tips – One of the biggest problems with the healthcare industry lies in the staffing section. In fact, there is almost always a shortage of staff to deal with patients, on average. Analysis of big data will yield the common problem areas of patients, helping healthcare providers recruit more effectively for the handling of any and all issues which might come to their doorsteps.
- Faster diagnosis – Running multiple tests, many of which are eliminatory and confirmatory tests anyways, for the diagnosis of diseases is not only time wasting, but highly cost ineffective.
Big data can solve the problem by mapping a patient’s records against a known database which helps narrow down what conditions such a patient might be suffering from. Honed to a higher level of accuracy, they can make diagnosis happen in the snap of a finger – rather than having to wait multiple days for test results.
3 Virtual Reality/ Augmented Reality
How would you feel to find out that something the entire world had dedicated to gaming and entertainment could also be used to better your health? Afterall, one of the areas where VR has found a great deal of application is in pain management.
Where opioids and other painkillers have usually been handed out with reckless abandon, the drug addiction problem that has been creating is something to be checked. Thankfully, VR is not lagging behind – and it is becoming a very suitable alternative as the day goes by.
Of course, that is just one of the many use cases of VR.
Augmented reality is even more invasive in how it helps surgeons plan complex surgeries before they open up the patient at all. With the various provisions of this tech, surgeons can lay organs over the patient’s body, identify where they want to get, and chart out their best course of action in a simulation.
With the global VR and AR market in the healthcare region expected to climb up to $5.1 billion by the year 2025, this is not going anywhere anytime soon.
4 Wearable Devices
Even though patients are scheduled for regular health maintenance checks, they were usually just fine with making one or two trips to the doctor’s office in a year. They would only visit more if something went wrong – but not before.
Fast forward to today, and these patients are concerning themselves with preventing health problems from happening at all rather than waiting to fix them.
That is where wearable devices come into the mix.
Operated on the technology of Internet of Things (IoT), these wearables have been equipped with an array of sensors which makes it possible to monitor the health status of patients in real time.
They can track any and all of:
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Menstrual cycle
- Sleep patterns
- Calorie intake
- Insulin levels
- Exercise patterns
- Activity level, and so much more.
Besides tracking, they also send alerts to the users (and their healthcare providers, if connected) when something is out of the ordinary. That way, they can quickly seek emergency help rather than have to wait for things to go fully south.
Some of the notable cases here are from the many times from which the Apple watch has saved the lives of its wearers, among other such impacts of wearables on patient health.
When most people hear the word ‘blockchain,’ the first thing that comes to their minds is the technology behind Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. We can assure you that the blockchain is much more than that – and its adoption into the healthcare sector is proving that to be true.
On its own, blockchain functions as a digital ledger of transparency and anonymity where sensitive information can be exchanged securely without the interception of third parties. This becomes important in a healthcare industry that is almost always the target of hackers and their attacks – due to the mine of data this industry is sitting on.
With blockchain in the loop, it becomes possible to create smart contracts around data transfers, helping users keep their health records safely stored online and private. Besides, it also allows for easy sharing of this data with authorized individuals – such as doctors – which in turn assures the patient of a faster diagnosis and service.
Identifying the Major Concerns
Like any other good piece of technology, these ones are not without their issues too. To fully understand how they can work for the healthcare sector, it is also important to evaluate the various problems they could pose – or could result as a cause of their usage.
If the picks above and other digital health technologies are to be properly evaluated, common faults can be found in them all.
For something that is promised to better the health of the masses, it is sad to note that they are not priced according to the pockets of the masses. Employing any of the pieces of technology above does not come without cost implications, true, but they are too huge for the average consumer.
Thus, they become yet another wave of technology which is available to only the rich in the society. That defeats the purpose which they have been made to serve in the first place: the betterment of general, public health.
Major stakeholders in the healthcare industry need to consolidate their efforts and resources towards making this technology available at affordable rates to combat this problem.
Looking at how many digital health products are deployed; it is easy to see that there is a lack of cooperation between health care practitioners and stakeholders in the tech field. This makes it almost impossible for the tech investors, developers, enthusiasts and other related personnel to create streamlined products and solutions for the patients in the healthcare sector.
Most of the time, the tech solution just barely cuts it. Here, we see the development of single-condition managing platforms for case where patients are dealing with multiple conditions at the same time.
Likewise, it is not uncommon to see that tracking is off – since the perception of what should be tracked (from the developer’s perspective) might not be the reality (from the physician’s point of view).
We have just too many digital health device manufacturers around today, and it doesn’t help that they don’t seem to be in agreement with one another.
In a bid to one-up themselves, manufacturers are subject to creating their units under different communication protocols. This easily becomes a problem for connected devices (such as wearables) since they lose their basic functionality – the ability to sync up with other units as part of an ecosystem.
If possible, a developmental framework should be drawn up for digital health devices, and enforced so that manufacturers keep to it. With that, better connectivity and interoperability of the devices is guaranteed.
Perhaps the biggest issue with digital health is in the digital records that they could be at a risk of letting into the wrong hands. It is no secret that the healthcare industry almost has a huge red dot on its back, and anything which has been taken online runs a huge risk of being hacked.
The problem with digital health devices is even more pronounced since they:
- Usually come with just about the most basic form of security, and no more; and
- Are often run on old software (such as the Windows Vista software found on majority of some 68,000 medical devices exposed online)
Fortunately, all of these issues can be made to go away by:
- Ensuring your digital health devices are secured with a strong password.
- Not connecting to just about any Wi-Fi networks, especially public Wi-Fi offerings
- Refraining from plugging your device into any computer you see
- Securing your home internet connection by layering it over a VPN and
- Reporting any and all cases of possible tampering to your health care providers as soon as they happen.
It would be wrong to deny the impacts of digital health devices in this industry, all because of some lags in operational model which they could be suffering. In the same vein, it would be counterproductive to choose to see only what they are capable of – and not how they can hurt the user too.
With both in sight, though, and the potential for development, the digital health industry is here to stay, and we cannot wait to see it realize the many promises it brings on board.