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Healthcare 2.0: Unlocking opportunities with emerging technologies

The objective of this series of articles is to highlight how emerging technologies can be leveraged to meet various Sustainable Development Goals-SDGs 2030, while impacting various domains. Another objective of this series of articles is to highlight how leveraging all these technologies can help create business opportunities in various domains. This time, our focus is going to be on Smart Health.

Good health and wellbeing is one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – SDG3. SDG3 of Sustainable Development Goals-SDGs 2030 states: “Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing.” The primary objective of SDG3 is to ensure healthy lives and wellbeing for everyone, regardless of age, gender or socioeconomic status. It aims to address various health challenges, reduce preventable deaths, and promote physical and mental well-being, and in the process envisages:

  1. Reducing maternal mortality and ensuring access to quality maternal and reproductive healthcare services.
  2. Ending preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years old, with a focus on tackling major diseases, malnutrition, and providing vaccinations.
  3. Combating major communicable diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria tuberculosis, as well as non-communicable diseases like cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
  4. Ensuring universal access to healthcare services, including access to essential medicines and vaccines, and strengthening
    health systems.
  5. Addressing substance abuse, promoting mental health, and providing access to affordable and quality healthcare services for all.

Emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Extended Reality, Blockchain, Big Data Analytics, Quantum Computing, Internet of Medical Things, 3D Printing, Digital Twins, Drones etc., ensure that concepts like Digital Health can be implemented to leap frog the traditional approach, as there is an acute shortage of all resources, including trained health professionals at the global level.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics
Healthcare data, including maternal health records can be analyzed to identify patterns and risk factors associated with maternal mortality and complications, since it varies from place to place. These technologies can help develop predictive models to identify high-risk pregnancies, provide personalized care plans and proactive intervention. (#1)

AI can help analyze disease patterns and environmental factors to detect outbreaks and anticipate disease trends. Early detection and response to outbreaks can prevent the spread of infectious diseases and enable targeted interventions to protect children’s health. (#2)

AI can also analyze, genetic information and molecular structures to accelerate drug discovery and development. It can also identify potential drug candidates, optimize treatment regimens, and predict drug responses. This can significantly impact the development of new therapies for communicable and non-communicable diseases, including HIV/AIDS, malaria, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases. (#3)

Data analytics and AI algorithms can also analyze large-scale healthcare data, providing insights for evidence-based decision-making and resource allocation. These technologies can help optimize healthcare delivery. It can also support clinical decision-making, risk stratification, and personalized treatment plans, improving health outcomes and efficiency of care. (#4)

Data from online assessments, surveys, and social media can be analyzed to identify individuals at risk of substance abuse or mental health disorders. It can assist in the early identification of symptoms, prompt appropriate interventions and guide personalized treatment plans. It can also improve the efficiency of mental health screenings and support the scalability of services. (#5)

Telemedicine and telehealth
Prenatal care, postpartum care and advice on reproductive health can be enabled through telemedicine network in rural and remote areas as well. Video consultations and remote monitoring devices can be helpful in the process. (#1)

Telemedicine platforms can connect healthcare providers with patients in remote guidance, consultations and follow-up care for both communicable and non- communicable diseases. (#3)

Telemedicine facilitates access to healthcare services, including primary care, specialist consultations, and follow-up visits. It can reduce travel costs and time, overcome geographical barriers and improve healthcare access for marginalized populations. (#4)

Teletherapy and online counseling services enable individuals to receive therapy, counseling, and support for substance abuse, addiction and mental health issues. Teletherapy thus expands access to mental healthcare, especially for those in underserved areas or facing barriers to in-person services. (#5)

Electronic Health Records (EHRs)
EHRs can help improve the management of maternal healthcare information in terms of a comprehensive and centralized record of a woman’s medical history, facilitating continuity of care between different healthcare providers, thus leading to informed decision-making, reduced medical errors, and improved coordination during the course of this entire cycle. (#1)

EHRs for children can help in the comprehensive management of vaccination records, growth charts, and medical history, besides improving coordination of care and enable healthcare providers to identify trends, patterns and gaps in healthcare delivery. (#2)

EHRs and data analytics can facilitate comprehensive management of patient information, disease surveillance and research, besides enabling tracking of disease trends, identifying risk factors and developing targeted interventions for communicable and non-communicable diseases. Data-driven insights can help formulate public health strategies, personalized treatments and early interventions. (#3)

EHR systems can streamline healthcare delivery, improve coordination of care, enhanced patient safety, besides enabling healthcare providers to access patient information and medical history, reducing duplication of tests, improving medication management and supporting continuity of care. Also this process can contribute to data collection for health system monitoring, resource allocation and policy planning. (#4)

Internet of Medical Things (IoMT)
Wearable devices, such as smartwatches or patches, can monitor vital signs, fetal heart rate, and uterine contractions. These devices enable healthcare providers to remotely track the health status of pregnant women, identify potential complications early on, and provide timely interventions. (#1)

Telemedicine platforms and remote monitoring devices can facilitate remote consultations and monitoring of children’s health. Parents or caregivers can share vital signs and report any concerning symptoms to the healthcare providers. This can help in the management of chronic conditions, timely response to emergencies and continuous monitoring of children’s growth and development. (#2)

Wearable devices, such as smartwatches and fitness trackers, can collect real-time health data, monitor vital signs and track disease progression. These devices enable remote monitoring of patients with chronic conditions, allowing healthcare providers to intervene early in case of complications and optimize treatment plans. They can also promote preventive behaviors and encourage individuals to adopt healthier lifestyles. (#3)

Wearable devices with biosensors can monitor physiological and behavioral indicators associated with mental health and substance abuse. These devices can detect changes in heart rate, sleep patterns, physical activity and stress levels. Digital biomarkers derived from these data can aid in early detection, personalized interventions and tracking treatment progress. These can also be used for pain control, smart belt for protection of elderly people against falls and ingestible sensors for prevention of drug abuse. (#5)

Extended Reality
Extended Reality (ER), which includes Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), can be used to create immersive and interactive educational experiences for both healthcare providers and pregnant women. These technologies can simulate medical procedures, childbirth scenarios and complications, allowing for better training and increased awareness about maternal health. (#1)

ER can enhance health workforce training and capacity building. These can provide realistic training scenarios, allowing healthcare professionals to practice procedures, clinical decision-making and emergency responses. This technology reduces the need for physical resources and can reach a broader audience, improving the skills of healthcare providers globally. (#4)

Post trauma stress management, Parkinson’s management, patient phobia management, rehabilitation process, special surgeries, robotic surgeries, precision biopsies, healthcare training and smart medical education can be effectively undertaken using Extended Reality.

Drones can be used to transport essential medical supplies, such as blood products, medications, vaccines and emergency equipment like defibrillators in remote and inaccessible areas, thus overcoming geographical barriers and ensure timely access to life-saving interventions for pregnant women, children or other patients in need of the same. Drones can also help transport critical patients from remote and inaccessible areas.

Quantum computing
Quantum computing aids speeding up of machine learning process, helps create antidotes for diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, besides drug development, silico clinical trials, speeding up DNA sequencing and analysis.

Patient Data storage and protection, clinical trials, analysis of medical procedures, supply chain management and drug traceability can be ensured using Blockchain. Besides, it would help in improving transparency, traceability and accountability in the distribution process, reducing inefficiencies, stockouts and identification of counterfeit products.

Digital twins
Digital twins help evaluate surgery risk assessment, patient monitoring and development in drug therapy model.

3D printing
Prosthetics, dentistry, porous bone structures, bioprinting of bio parts including cartilages can be enabled leveraging 3D printing. This could be a big boon in the developing countries with a lot of citizens with physical challenges.

Mobile health (mHealth) applications
Mobile apps can provide valuable information on prenatal care, nutrition, childbirth and postnatal care in the form of reminders for important appointments and medication schedules. Besides this, the apps can enable women to track their own health indicators enabling them to report any abnormalities promptly. (#1)

Mobile apps can serve as valuable tools for health education, awareness and behavior change. They can provide information on proper nutrition, breastfeeding, immunizations, hygiene practices and early childhood development, besides sending reminders for vaccination schedules, growth monitoring, and nutrition interventions, ensuring that parents and caregivers stay informed and take necessary actions. (#2)

Mobile apps also enhance disease management and self-care for individuals with communicable and non-communicable diseases, besides providing educational resources, medication reminders, symptom tracking, and lifestyle interventions. For instance, mHealth apps can assist individuals with HIV/AIDS and non-communicable diseases in adhering to therapies, and monitoring their blood pressure, glucose levels or physical activity. (#3)

Mobile apps can provide access to healthcare information, health education and self-care tools. They can facilitate appointment scheduling, medication reminders, symptom tracking and remote monitoring. mHealth apps can also support supply chain management for essential medicines and vaccines, ensuring their availability and accessibility. (#4)

For developing nations, meeting these key objectives is quite a task, for various reasons, including limited resources, high poverty levels, limited access to education, food insecurities, lack of health infrastructure, limited access to clean water and sanitation, high rate of infectious diseases and finally being on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Emerging technologies facilitate the development of online healthcare marketplaces and telemedicine platforms that connect individuals with affordable and quality healthcare services. These platforms offer transparent pricing, facilitate access to healthcare providers, enable individuals to compare options and make informed decisions about their care. They can promote affordability, reduce barriers to access and increase healthcare choices.

Indian experience
Let us take the case of India, a developing nation with a population of 1.4 billion, with 70 percent of them (about a billion) living in 650,000 villages. So, for universal access to healthcare services we need minimum 650,000 well-equipped quality primary health centers, including healthcare professionals in the rural India alone. Considering the fact that some villages are several square kms in size, even one such health center is not any luxury. This is just the beginning of the challenge. The quality of healthcare professionals is the other facet of it. India is not alone. A large number of African nations and Asia and the Pacific islands have similar challenges. 46 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are from these regions. This is where technology can come to our rescue.

In 2008, the Government of India established a Pan-African e-Network platform, linking 53 nations of Africa to India, for education and health services. Over the next decade more than 5500 sessions of Continued Medical Education(CMEs) and also telemedicine (TM) sessions were conducted from AIIMS New Delhi, Apollo, Amrita, Fortis, SGPGI Lucknow, and other hospitals in India, for capacity building in Africa. This was a dream project of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, our former President. This was India’s demonstration of how technology can be leveraged for capacity building in the domain of health, in a rare example of South-South cooperation. This was followed by another such program for the SAARC nations – Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal. India also prepared a roadmap for an e-Network for the Pacific Small Island Nations in 2010.

Dr. Kalam also wanted the Pan-African experience to percolate down to the Indian villages, which have been getting a raw deal even after independence. So, with Telemedicine Society of India, we were able to establish a model for the Rural Telemedicine system. Let us hope that the same gets implemented on ground, across the country, so that the citizens living in the hinterland of the country do not have to move from pillar to post when they need medical attention.

Emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Quantum Computing, Extended Reality, Block Chain, Big Data Analytics etc., can play a significant role in taking healthcare to the hinterland of the developing nations. It would help in meeting all the five targets of SDG3, by 2030.

There is a tremendous scope for new businesses in the MSME segment also to flourish, while meeting the objectives of SDG3, leveraging these emerging technologies. A paradigm shift is expected to happen in the domain of healthcare in India and the other developing world as well, in the coming years!

This article is authored by Vimal Wakhlu, Former Chairman & Managing Director, Telecommunications Consultants India Ltd. Views expressed are personal.

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