Given how digital technologies have dramatically transformed every walk of life, it’s understandable if you’re asking yourself what the future of digital health will look like.
Digital health - or eHealth, if you will - refers to the use of the internet and related technologies as a delivery system for health services and information.
It’s not to be confused with digital wellbeing, despite being used as a synonym for this by many - which you can read about in our exhaustive Resource Hub.
But there is considerable overlap.
Healthcare has long been an early adopter of new innovations, with digital technologies and data already vital to effective healthcare delivery around the world. As such, the response to COVID-19 saw an acceleration of preexisting trends towards the digitization of medicine.
Ultimately, the nature of the lockdown meant healthcare professionals had to find avenues through which healthcare could be accessed remotely by patients, with effectiveness essential at a time when the sector was busier than ever.
COVID-19 also offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to integrate digital technologies and a data-centric approach - powered by technology like artificial intelligence, smartphones, wearable devices, and the internet of things - into standard healthcare delivery.
The goal here is to use digital technologies to increase the personalization of healthcare, and for patients to manage their own health better as a way to take a burden off what is an overwhelmed industry.
These changes - spurred by the pandemic - are here to stay, and this article will look at the key trends that will shape digital healthcare in the years to come:
The Medical Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the billions of physical devices that are plugged into the internet. These can include anything from smart smoke detectors and smart alarm systems to smart tennis rackets, smart cars, and smart pet food bowls.
Ultimately, the IoT has normalized the everyday use of smart technology - wearable health monitors are already popular consumer goods.
The Medical IoT is now a fast growing area; and thanks to artificial intelligence and machine learning, wearable devices and monitors are a real improvement on the medical devices that came before.
The vast majority of people are comfortable using monitoring devices themselves, and this technology will only become more useful to healthcare as a way for patients to proactively monitor their health, while taking the burden off doctors and nurses, and points to a digital health-enabled future.
The huge amount of information that can be collected through portable digital devices means that the healthcare industry is focused on finding ways to use data to improve patient treatment and care.
This would involve finding ways to build these large volumes of personal information into patients’ electronic medical records (EMR), with the goal of creating a more integrated patient journey.
It can be combined with broader demographic medical data that would help in predicting a patient’s future medical conditions.
Ultimately, “big data” also brings with it the potential to personalize care. But this conflicts with the possibilities this technology brings for the standardization of medical care, and it will be interesting to see how well the industry balances these two issues.
AI and Automation
AI refers to smart machines that can perform tasks that normally require human intelligence.
From this, it’s easy to imagine how useful AI could be for decision making and predicting clinical outcomes for the medical community.
It’s still early days for such advanced computer systems, but experts believe that it will profoundly reshape digital healthcare once concerns about data privacy and bias have been put to bed.
This technology also fits nicely with the growing trend towards volume-based care targets, and it’s already having a real impact thanks to the way it has been used in the automation process of time-intensive tasks. AI has already proved useful, for instance, in complex stroke diagnostics.
Chatbots and digital scribes that automate doctor note-taking, and remove other tasks from overworked healthcare workers, have also become more popular in recent years.
The pandemic saw a shift in how the healthcare sector operated, with patients receiving consultations remotely as a way to improve the safety of healthcare provision. This is a practice called telehealth.
Countries around the world are investing heavily in digital health, in the belief that it will substantially reduce the burden on hospitals.
Patients are now used to remote consultations, and they are also welcomed by medical practitioners who can save time, cut costs, and see more people.
However, this new approach has also created an urgent need to improve data sharing and collaboration across hospitals and other facilities, and has resulted in the creation of central data hubs to facilitate delivery.
It will be interesting to see how effective the healthcare sector is at resolving these issues as telehealth services become more and more common in the future.
Digital Wellness Apps
The concept of digital wellbeing is growing in popularity, as people have become more proactive about their own health. And this can be seen even with regard to the popularity of mindfulness apps like Headspace, Calm, and Liberate.
There are also now many digital health apps that enable patients to manage diseases - in part by educating them on how to deal with these conditions effectively. For instance, diabetics can use apps to monitor blood sugar levels, nutrition, medication, and so forth.
Employees too are taking note; it’s increasingly common for companies to have a digital wellness lead - Buna ziua Anca! - but, while in house wellness apps remain a relatively new concept, they are catching on fast.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
Even though the much prophesied virtual reality revolution has yet to be realized on a large scale, these technologies are certainly building momentum - particularly given the amount of attention that the metaverse - and the wider future of the internet - is getting at the moment.
After the Coronavirus outbreak, working conditions shifted dramatically and remote working was adopted widely.
In order to function effectively in this new environment, mental health organizations, for instance, developed apps that enable employees to enter simulated environments via a headset and to regulate their reactions to real-world situations that may have an influence on their mental health.
An Onus on Patient Proactivity
As things stand, the potential of digital technologies to transform healthcare has yet to be fully realized, and there are concerns that poorer communities will miss out on these advancements for obvious reasons.
Signs are that they will play a lead role in healthcare delivery around the world, but it also looks like patients will need to proactively manage their own health in this new environment.
As such, there’s real hope that patients will utilize the technology they have available to them, and to take an interest in their own wellbeing - with their digital wellbeing a key element of this.