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Beyond the pill – how technology will change your experience of healthcare

From smart pills to the Internet of Medical Things, digital technologies will transform medicine and the way we receive treatment and care

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Adoption of digital technology in healthcare started long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but our recent experiences have shown how comfortable many people are using it. From downloading COVID-19 symptom apps to consulting with a GP on a video call, patients have adapted well to changes forced on us by the pandemic.

These technological changes will accelerate over the decade. We will all soon be using digital technology to prevent, treat and manage medical conditions. Digital technology will enable healthcare on-demand and give us a much more holistic experience of healthcare.

Internet of Medical Things

The Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) describes the devices that collect and exchange data – either with users or other devices – via the internet. As computing power and wireless capabilities improve, we’ll see greater use of (IoMT) to deliver our care.

The major use for the IoMT at the moment is for patients to send their health information to doctors to track and prevent chronic illnesses. But there are other uses such as ‘smart pills’ containing microscopic sensors, which, once swallowed, transmit data to connected devices.  More mundane uses include: online appointment scheduling systems, self-check-in terminals at hospitals and GP surgeries, paying for hospital car parking, and ordering meals if you’re unlucky enough to be an in-patient.

Cloud computing

Cloud computing is the delivery of computing services over the Internet (the Cloud). Instead of buying, owning, and maintaining physical data centres, health organisations can effectively ‘rent’ their computing power, storage and databases from companies like Amazon, Microsoft and IBM.

For businesses, using Cloud computing cuts their costs and improves efficiency – but how does it benefit patients?

At a systems level, having patient data in the Cloud makes information easily accessible regardless of where the patient or doctor is. This can speed up care, especially in an emergency. At an individual level, it means easy access to records and medical images. Need a second opinion? Just log into the Cloud to give your new consultant access to your tests and medical history. You don’t even have to be in the same country as the doctor.

Cloud computing also offers the possibility of on-demand services, which patients are increasingly beginning to expect of their health services.

5G

With its ability to move data quickly, reduce the lag when requesting data from a network, and increase network capacity, 5G will transform healthcare across the globe. It will make accessing data easy and will connect patients and healthcare professionals securely and reliably.

Researchers STL Partners believes that, by 2030, 5G will enable an extra billion patients in remote and less developed corners of the globe consult healthcare workers. 5G’s greater bandwidth will support the telemedicine networks that can wirelessly support real-time high-quality video so that patients can talk to a doctor from anywhere.

5G may even enable telesurgery. There are reports that Chinese surgeons have implanted a brain stimulation device using robotic equipment, working in a remote location. However, controlling surgery remotely is only possible if the data connection and network are rapid, broad, reliable and secure, which 5G will offer.

5G will get rid of the need to switch between in-Wi-Fi networks and mobile networks and allows integration of what are currently incompatible systems running the smart home into a single network.

Wearables

Fitness trackers were among the first digital health-related technologies that people started using. With sensors to keep track of physical activity and heart rate, these devices synced to smartphone apps and let users know how their exercise regimes were going.

Now there are wearables to monitor a patient’s heart function and send the results directly to their doctor, help improve their sleep, and even check fertility. These devices are all part of the (IoMT).

Last year saw the launch of HeartGuide, a wearable blood pressure monitor capable of storing readings and transferring them to its companion mobile app, HeartAdvisor. Without having to visit the doctor office, the wearable (which looks like a watch) and the app together give both doctor and patients insight into how their behaviour affects their blood pressure. Doctors can advise on any necessary changes to medication or behaviour.

Biosensors are the latest in wearables. These clever gadgets can be worn unobtrusively and analyse what the wearer’s body is doing. The Philips’ wearable biosensor, a self-adhesive patch usually attached to the chest, continuously measures all vital signs, body posture and step count, and can even detect falls. It has been shown to help doctors spot people whose health may be deteriorating, and intervene.

And, in a nod to the pandemic, one of the latest wearables is a helmet designed especially for security services that can detect if someone has a fever from five metres away. Chinese tech firm KC Wearables’ smart helmet sounds an alarm when anyone with a high temperature comes close.

It has an infra-red temperature detector, an augmented-reality visor, a camera that can read QR codes, plus Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 5G that enables it to send data to medical teams. It has facial and licence plate recognition technology, as well as night vision capabilities. It enables a policeman to check a licence plate and the temperature of the driver at the same time, as well as to identify them and call up their medical records.

Artificial intelligence in healthcare

Artificial intelligence (AI) may one day avoid misdiagnosis of illness and enable the treatment of the root cause of disease, rather than just the symptoms.

AIs analyse the vast quantities of data that are accumulating in electronic medical records to develop algorithms that identify patterns in a disease that help doctors identify illnesses. Data analysis can also help identify optimal treatments for patients with certain characteristics.

Doctors in South Korea have used AI to study chest x-rays, looking for potential cancers. When compared to a doctor’s detection abilities, the AI outperformed 17 of 18 doctors.

Google AI Healthcare has an algorithm that analyses lymph node biopsies, checking for the spread or recurrence of breast cancer. It has been able to identify suspicious findings that human reviewers couldn’t. The AI made the distinction between cancerous and non-cancerous cells correctly 99% of the time. When doctors used it in conjunction with their usual screening methods, it halved the average slide review time.

Combined with other devices in the IoMT, AI can increase the scale at which monitoring and any needed interventions can be achieved. One NHS study in hospitals in South East England that serve a population of 500,000 people, looked to see if it was possible to use AI to reduce readmissions to the hospital.

On discharge, patients were fitted with a Wi-Fi-enabled armband that monitored vital signs. Using AI to analyse the patient data in real-time, the study was able to reduce hospital readmission rates and visits to A&E, while ensuring that a whopping 96% of patients stuck to their discharge treatment plans. A significant improvement in the average of 50%.

 

 

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