Technology’s ability to address the global healthcare challenge
Search for the words “healthcare” and “crisis” – along with the name of just about any country in the world – and a cascade of headlines fills the screen. A cacophony of voices and articles all call for the same thing – greater healthcare spending – yet a scarcity of resources isn’t necessarily the cause of the problems.
Healthcare providers everywhere, it seems, are grappling with increasing costs and insatiable demand, driven by ageing societies and the rising incidence of chronic illnesses including cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes – all accompanied by ever-growing patient expectations.
Boosting patient outcomes and reducing costs
Could advances in technology prove the answer to these challenges? Adrien Brossard, financial analyst at Pictet Wealth Management, believes their impact will certainly prove “significant”.
Critically, Adrien notes, advances in technology should enable earlier diagnoses of illness, heightening the ability of medics to treat diseases effectively and giving patients a much better chance of recovery. Early diagnosis, he says, may be the best way of improving the population’s overall health.
The ability to automate time-consuming and labour-intensive practices in care and administration, and across supply chains, should further boost efficiencies, as well as the bottom line.
Meanwhile, personalised healthcare technology, such as wearable devices and DNA data, helps doctors identify which diseases patients are prone to, and develop individualised plans to treat those diseases.
Improvements in technology – enabling better monitoring and risk assessment prior to surgery – are also boosting ambulatory care. This involves the provision of medical services on an outpatient basis, although one night in a hospital might be necessary. Patients favour the limited stay in a hospital, while providers benefit from reduced treatment costs.
The early detection of diseases could also prove beneficial from an economic standpoint. Adrien explains that “late-stage diseases often result in exponentially increasing healthcare costs, whereas early intervention can potentially reduce healthcare expenditure and improve long-term outcomes”.
However, there are challenges. These include issues surrounding patient confidentiality. Wearable devices, for example, track patient data in real time and transmit sensitive patient information to the relevant parties.
Hospitals and clinics must have robust security measures in place to protect the integrity of this data, given the potential for breaches. In addition, while telemedicine might offer significant advantages, patients need to be able to access it, and even in the most advanced economies there remains a digital divide. In the US, for example, nearly a quarter of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband services.1
The high upfront costs of technological solutions could also place even greater short-term pressure on already stressed healthcare budgets.
AI’s emerging role in healthcare solutions
The impact on healthcare systems worldwide can already be seen. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are playing a key role in speeding the development of various technologies that hold the potential to revolutionise healthcare. AI algorithms, for example, can assist in early detection of disease by analysing patient data, enabling timely interventions and improved patient outcomes.
AI is also powering advances in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), which are enabling surgeons to practise complex procedures in a safe and controlled virtual environment, reducing errors and shortening learning curves. VR and AR have potential applications in patient education, mental-health interventions, and rehabilitation programmes. They offer immersive experiences that improve patient engagement, facilitate therapeutic interventions, and enhance the process of rehabilitation.
In addition, AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants can provide 24/7 patient support, answering common medical questions and offering triage services. AI also has the ability to automate administrative tasks, optimise drug-development processes, and streamline clinical trials.
Indeed, the full potential of AI and the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) in healthcare – as in many areas – is only now being discovered. But its impact is already being felt. The integration of IoMT devices in healthcare enables live monitoring and remote patient care. Wearable sensors and connected devices can continuously track patients’ vital signs, providing valuable data for healthcare providers. That allows medics to monitor patients’ health status, intervene promptly if needed, and reduce hospital readmissions. Cardiology, diabetes and nutrition are just three of the areas in which AI devices are being widely adopted. Even consumer products such as smartwatches – while not classified as medical devices – offer valuable functions such as electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring, helping to identify vulnerable individuals. Once an issue is detected, patients can be directed to see a general practitioner or a cardiologist, who can prescribe the use of more advanced devices better able to monitor any issues.
In the field of diabetes, endocrinologists overwhelmingly urge diabetic and pre-diabetic patients to use Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) devices. CGMs provide two major advantages. First, they enable healthcare professionals to assess how well patients are managing their disease and provide personalised recommendations for adjustments to treatment over a patient’s lifetime. Second, numerous well-controlled clinical trials have shown that real-time glucose monitoring through CGMs helps patients maintain healthy glucose levels for longer periods.
Other areas where important technological breakthroughs are occurring include:
- Genomics, proteomics (the large-scale study of proteins) and “omics” technologies – where advances are playing a pivotal role in the development of personalised medicine and targeted therapies. For example, liquid biopsies provide a non-invasive method for early-stage cancer detection and monitoring how patients are responding to treatment.
- 3D printing – which is revolutionising healthcare by enabling the creation of patient-specific implants, prosthetics and anatomical models that improve surgical outcomes and reduce complications. 3D printing also enhances surgical training by providing realistic models to practise upon, allowing surgeons to refine their skills and plan surgeries more effectively.
The personal touch
A more efficient healthcare sector does not necessarily translate into job losses. Indeed, Adrien believes healthcare professionals should remain in high demand. He points out that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the shortage of nurses, technicians, doctors and surgeons in many national healthcare systems. The World Health Organization (WHO) is projecting a shortfall of 10 million health workers by 2030, mostly in low-income and lower-middle-income countries.2
The healthcare industry may remain dependent on highly trained humans, with technology serving as an increasingly sophisticated – and useful – tool to augment and enhance patient care and outcomes.
Early diagnosis the key
The overall health of the population in developed economies has declined over the past 50 years, states Adrien. Populations are ageing and the incidence of obesity is rising, and those trends are gathering pace. Between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population that is aged over 60 years may nearly double, from 12% to 22%, according to the WHO3. The Organization also says that worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975 and the number of obese people is still growing. It estimates that, by 2025, approximately 167 million people – adults and children – may become less healthy because they are overweight or obese.4
Both obesity and ageing are key contributors to cardiovascular disease and cancer, which are two main causes of mortality.
Technological advances should significantly improve the ability of healthcare systems to prioritise the early detection of diseases to enable swift medical intervention. There are, of course, challenges, such as ensuring that patient data is safe and that everyone can access the new technologies. Overall, though, it seems likely that these advances could prove a win-win for patients and providers alike.