2018 was the year of the consumer, and there is no sign of a change any time soon. The smartphone has paved the way for direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing, driving refinements in marketing tools and redefining consumer expectations. Consumers increasingly value experience over product and have come to expect personalized, targeted experiences — radically shifting the focus of the business marketplace. The healthcare landscape is no exception to this shift; it is increasingly driven by the needs and desires of patients. Thanks to the rise of high-deductible health plans and premiums, patients are shouldering a greater portion of healthcare costs than ever before. This increase has positioned patients as consumers at the center of operational changes across the healthcare marketplace.
But innovations in digital health look different than those in DTC technology. First of all, health tools are not about cutting out the middle man — instead, they are about reinforcing and improving the relationship between patient and provider that is fundamental to care. And they come with a unique set of challenges. At the risk of stating the obvious, the stakes are much higher when consumer health is the product, patient safety is imperative. Additionally, the wealth of data that is required for the success of many digital innovations raises serious concerns about data security and patient privacy, and the rapid growth of tech innovation complicates regulation.
As technology becomes more sophisticated, however, these concerns are being mitigated. And as consumer demand continues to dominate the marketplace, the healthcare industry — supported by the policymakers — is increasingly on board with tech innovation. The volume of telehealth visits is skyrocketing and there’s been rapid growth in the Internet of Things (IoT) market providing us with new ways to remotely monitor our patients. The digital health market is expected to reach USD 206 billion by 2020. Leading companies are already redefining themselves with digital transformation, applied to their main functional areas with a customer-centric approach. Let’s explore what some of the healthcare technology pundits are excited and worried about health IT in 2019 and ahead.
Mobile apps and BYOD
One of the first predictions for 2019 is the increasing reliance on handheld digital devices. The trend impacts both patients and clinicians. Patients use their devices for healthcare more frequently now. In fact, one-third of patients today use the internet as a diagnostic tool for their health. This trend, more than anything else in today’s internet-fueled society, has commoditized healthcare, pulling back the medical curtain and empowering the patients. This democratization of information has had a tangible impact on patient health and will continue to do so in the future. But the medical community is not immune from digital obsessions. More doctors and other clinical providers will continue bring your own devices, (BYOD) trend. Most hospitals and clinics have adapted to healthcare workers bringing their own smartphones, laptops, and tablets to their facilities. One of the challenges, of course, is that the phone apps on these devices could serve as a backdoor for hackers. CIOs will need to balance the need for security with physicians’ need for easy access. But handheld digital devices are not the only tools expected to make waves in 2019.
In a large country where access to providers is limited, telemedicine is increasingly proving to be transformative. 2018 saw many of the barriers to telehealth technology growing smaller or being removed completely. Telehealth will allow an unprecedented level of access to care for time-strapped and chronically ill patients during a time of clinician shortages and rising healthcare costs. Rural communities experiencing doctor shortages will benefit from the expanded access allowed by telehealth technology. In urban areas, underserved communities face problems arising from wait times. Telemedicine is improving diagnosing and treatment by making it easier for patients to get access to specialists. While the current video chat platforms that dominate the sector serve immense purposes, telehealth services can do a lot more.
Wearables and IoMT
Various devices and mobile apps have come to play a critical role in tracking and preventing chronic illnesses for many patients and their doctors. By combining IoT development with telemedicine and telehealth technologies, a new internet of medical things (IoMT) has emerged. This approach includes the use of a number of wearables, including ECG and EKG monitors. Many other common medical measurements can also be taken, such as skin temperature, glucose level, and blood pressure readings. Between 20 and 30 billion IoMT devices are expected to be deployed by 2020. By 2021, the market for IoT devices in healthcare is anticipated to reach USD 136 billion, Allied Market Research reported. Providing consistent and effective communication with numerous medical IoT devices is one of the biggest challenges that the sector faces.
A variety of public, private, and hybrid cloud-based platforms are available for the sharing of large files. Healthcare organizations are trying to address the need to build out, run, and maintain infrastructure for record-keeping needs. Here cloud computing becomes an appealing choice for digital technology in healthcare. Patients and healthcare providers both tend to get better access to records through cloud-based solutions, and they make the consultation process more convenient. These telemedicine applications, though, place greater demand on synchronous and asynchronous messaging systems. The desire to integrate video for live consultations also creates pressure to deploy WAN connections that are speedy, secure and stable. In a cloud environment, every step of the process needs to be judiciously monitored.
This is one of the nascent healthcare technology trends. Developing AI machines—that can process information and provide decision-making data in a manner similar to what a human does—has given rise to an entirely new sector of innovative health technologies. The potential for AI and other technologies to create synergies that yield digital transformation in healthcare is immense. Mobile devices and IoMT systems will drive increases in the sizes of available data sets for AI software to analyze. The large ecosystem is expected to become significantly more interdependent as the industry moves forward. Microsoft is developing Project InnerEye, an AI tool for radiotherapy. 3D contouring of a patient’s planning cans can be produced in minutes, rather than hours.
Dealing with routine queries using AI-backed messaging and voice systems can help organizations realize cost savings. Utilizing smart bots in a digital assistant role allows practitioners to keep better track of contacts, offer appointments more readily and easily make changes. Patients also have an easier time getting refills of prescriptions orders, and the billing process tends to be smoother. Lab tests can be transmitted more readily, and patients can be informed of procedure outcomes sooner. Chatbots may also be beneficial for practices dealing with older patients. A character can be created who will serve as an assistant to provide friendly reminders. By connecting with other technologies, such as analytics and AI, the assistant can even warn about potential drug interactions. Chatbots are already revolutionizing the business world, and they can be expected to be a big part of the digital transformation in healthcare, too. Attention does need to be paid to some of the risks. Automated systems should not be seen as replacements for the opinions of experts, especially when the risks include threats to patients.
While healthcare has historically been slow to adopt technology, the industry is about to witness significant changes over the next several years. Innovative healthcare technologies will remain the basis for the digital transformation of business in this sector. Adopting digital technologies in 2019 will help keep clinicians connected with patients who prefer to use these tools. While there will remain a core contingent of patients that prefer face-to-face interactions, healthcare providers will continue to respond to consumer demand by expanding their digital offerings.
Blockchain, augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence; these technologies will all have their place in improving care delivery, but much of their value is yet to be discovered. Blockchain, while intriguing and full of promise, still has few use cases to actually prove its value, making it unlikely that 2019 will be the year of the blockchain. Virtual and augmented reality solutions, however, are closer to showing a practical application in healthcare.
The piece of emerging tech that may truly shine in 2019, however, is artificial intelligence. With AI and machine learning, the industry is going to see a continued revolution in the next 12 months, noting that the industry is beginning to see the capabilities catch up with the promise of these tools, particularly when it comes to engaging automation to reduce administrative burden and enhance clinical decision-making. On the consumer side, the tech has the potential to better harness patient data and improve personalization. To take advantage of these technologies, however, will require that stakeholders dive in to see what these tools can really do.