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LATEST TRENDS IN COMMUNICATION REGARDING DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES AND HEALTH

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

LATEST TRENDS IN COMMUNICATION REGARDING DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES AND HEALTH


Date: 4 May 2022

KEY POINTS IN THE ANALYSIS


· Over the last year risk capital investment in the eHealth sector has risen steeply.

· Telemedicine, data analysis, mobile health applications, solutions for physical wellbeing and wearable sensors are the five areas of innovation that are benefiting most from investment funds.

· In addition, so far this year, a great number of forums, conferences and congresses have been held on innovation and new digital technologies focused on the healthcare sector. Among these, major technological events such as the Mobile World Congress have given these issues greater prominence in this year's edition.

· The principal trends arousing most interest at these events are: the arrival of Big Tech in the healthcare sector, opportunities for blockchain in data processing, the Internet-connected home and its physical wellbeing features, or the impact of artificial intelligence and virtual reality in the field of health.


Although the eHealth market has grown over the last decade, the effects of Covid-19, since 2020, have sparked the emergence of a new sector that currently presents an attractive business opportunity for a range of industries.

This momentum is being driven by growing investment in innovation in the field of digital healthcare solutions. According to data provided by Digital Health Business & Technology (2), just in 2021, startups in the eHealth sector worldwide received financing for a total of $30,700 million from venture capital funds. This figure represents 60% growth over the volume of investment in 2020.


By sub-sectors, this research points to five top areas in which the greater part of these investments is placed. These are: telemedicine, data analysis, mobile healthcare apps, digital services for physical wellbeing and wearable sensors.


Undoubtedly, these are optimistic figures for all stakeholders in technological innovation in the field of health. But which are the principal trends leading the current debate on R+D for eHealth solutions?

In this study, we have attempted to answer this question identifying the principal areas of interest guiding this debate, both online and at events centering on innovation in this sector held so far this year. We have focused on a selection of major events in Spain and abroad:


· “Mobile World Congress”, held at Fira de Barcelona from 28 February and 3 March, organised by GSM, at which startups and successful case studies were presented with a focus on the future of technology in the healthcare sector.

· “The Pulse of Change”, organised by Mapfre and Accenture, from 28 February to 2 March, likewise within the framework of the Mobile World Congress, at which these entities presented their joint report on recent trends in eHealth (1) (16).

· “The Check Up”, organised by Google Health in March, at which Big Tech presented to the public its latest advances and current research in the field of digital technologies applied to health (8).

· “InnovaHome Festival: Technologies supporting the health sector”, held on 7 April and organised by BBVA Open Innovation (14) (15).

· “The Innovation Wave” organised on 10 March by Novartis, at which leaders and decision-makers for digital transformation in the sector discussed the nature of health in the future (18).

· “Health Talks”, organised by Movimiento Salud 2030 on 28-29 April and focused on the health innovation ecosystem in Latin America (19).

· “Foro Innovación y Transformación Digital en Salud”, held in Murcia on 16 March by Fundación Integra, a public regional organisation specialising in the field of health innovation (21).

· “Demo day”, held in Gandía on 5 April and organised by Distrito e-Health, the first open innovation programme for digital health in Spain. At this event a total of 12 eHealth innovation projects were selected and presented for the final phase in the programme (20).

· “Feria del Mueble de Yecla”, scheduled for 24-27 May, at which the presentation of a number of innovative initiatives are announced within the scope of eHealth, such as the eHealth Home project, based on the incorporation of technology to home furnishings with the aim of detecting and monitoring cardiovascular health patterns, or the healthcare robot RB-1 developed by the Spanish startup Robotnik (5).


Having examined all the issues and projects submitted at these events, we have identified some common ground on which they all play a prominent role. This includes the following:

1. The arrival of Big Tech in the healthcare sector.

2. Big data: data protection and the applications of blockchain, personalisation of information, cloud-based operation, etc.

3. Smart homes and the implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT), connected devices and robotics for monitoring health and physical wellbeing in the home.

4. Implementation of artificial intelligence and deep learning in developing tools enabling more customised treatments based on real-time data.

5. Application of virtual and extended reality to healthcare processes and the impact of the metaverse.


BIG TECH'S INTEREST IN THE SECTOR


One of the most widely debated issues is the arrival of Big Tech to the healthcare sector, and its potential for causing disruption among traditional actors.


Above all, this debate stemmed from the purchase of FitBit by Google as announced in January 2021 (4), but has been fuelled in recent months by other important movements, such as the launching of Amazon's healthcare service (Amazon Care) in the USA last March (6).


Amazon Care works through a mobile app in which users can connect with medical specialists to receive care based on their personal medical history. Each patient is asked to answer a set of questions to allow the algorithm to find the most appropriate specialists, in a fully personalised manner, providing care even in cases of emergency. This release is giving rise to much debate and, for many, the entry of a giant such as Amazon in this type of telemedicine services will be a turning point in the healthcare industry as we know it.

Microsoft, in turn, closed a deal last March to purchase the artificial intelligence company Nuance with the aim of boosting its cloud strategy in the healthcare sector, a clear indicator that the incorporation of technology to the field of health also involves the cloud.


Initiatives of this kind leave no doubts as to large technology corporations' growing interest in competing on this new emerging market.


Within the telecommunications sector, companies such as Movistar and Yoigo have also taken up positions launching their telemedicine applications Movistar Salud and Doctor Go.


From the viewpoint of startups, the debate is centred around the window of opportunity that is opening up for generating synergies with this type of actors that differ from those traditionally found in this sector.


BLOCKCHAIN FOR PRIVACY IN DATA PROCESSING


One of the trends brought in by what is known as precision medicine (based on data analysis through digital technologies) is increased healthcare personalisation. Nevertheless, one of the barriers to this trend is the possible treatment of consumers' private medical data by the various agents involved in the eHealth sector.


In this sense, since Covid-19, the level of awareness among a large proportion of consumers has increased with regard to the use of their personal medical data, and their confidence in the privacy of said information is low, especially in the case of technology providers.


For instance, according to the recent survey by Accenture (7), only 41% of consumers worldwide trusts in healthcare technology providers' ability to adequately custody their personal data.


In response to this problem, the opportunity for systems based on blockchain is being considered. For example, startups such as TripleBlind or Incountry are already proposing alternatives to traditional shared information systems, based on DLT platforms capable of storing or accrediting information in an anonymous and immutable manner, thus guaranteeing greater levels of privacy and normative compliance. Therefore, blockchain is another important field in which to develop business ideas.


SMART HOMES AND THE FUTURE OF INTERNET-CONNECTED HEALTH IN THE HOME


A further busy field of activity is the smart home. The main line of action is the digitisation of the various items of furnishing in smart homes' so that these contribute to maintaining physical wellbeing, as well as a more active and healthier ageing.


This implies that we are increasingly considering the possibilities offered by IoTfor turning chairs, tables, beds and any other item within the home into connected devices capable of recording data and identifying the personal habits of each member of the household. On the basis of these data, the devices can subsequently analyse behaviour patterns and issue recommendations, warnings, etc.


This aspect of IoT is giving rise to a new ecosystem of startups offering devices capable of monitoring vital signs and biomarkers, almost unnoticed by the user. Examples of such devices are those developed by Acurable, a company that offers wearable devices designed for use inside houses, or Aerial which, by contrast, is focused on health monitoring for elderly and care-dependent persons through the home Wi-Fi network, without the need for wearables, thus avoiding the feeling of control that these devices often convey.


Within this trend we find several agents of innovation who are very keen to discover business opportunities. Among these, we may highlight the following sectors: furniture manufacturers, builders and domotic device manufacturers.

Increasingly present on this scenario is the field of research in robotics and automation. For instance, healthcare robots are being launched, such as the RB1-Base model designed by the Spanish company Robotnik, equipped to serve patients who may need to be treated in isolation. This robot features an autonomous browsing system, videoconference functions, touch-screen and tool- or medicine kit.

Image of the home healthcare robot RB1-Base by Robotnik. Source: Robotnik


ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI)

A further area currently receiving much attention is the implementation of artificial intelligence models in order to generate tools for more highly personalised healthcare.

Big Tech is also conducting significant work in this area. A notable example is Google which, during its latest event 'The Check Up' held last March, described the new lines of research it is working on for the implementation of AI in the field of eHealth.

For the last few years, Google Health has been working on the development of tools that will allow medical teams to provide more personalised care and, in turn, allow physicians to provide care from a remote location with greater precision and effectiveness, avoiding in many cases the need for face-to-face care at medical centres.

In this line, the new ideas being developed at Google are:

Improving smartphone cameras for protecting cardiovascular health or preserving eyesight. The ARDA project, for instance, aims to improve tests for the detection of diabetic retinopathy, and is currently studying 350 patients each day in order to compile patterns that may be incorporated to their algorithms to achieve faster, more accessible and more precise eye tests. Automatic image analysis techniques are being used in this study, taking photographs of the eyes and processing these with cameras capable of identifying patterns (9).

These same analytical techniques through AI and deep learning may be applied for the detection of other health problems such as cardiovascular risk, blood cholesterol levels, heart or lung problems, etc.


For instance, they are likewise experimenting with the recording of heart sounds on smartphones, and on other types of smart sensors capable of generating metrics and feeding algorithms that constantly learn and fine-tune the input from their daily experience, which allows them to detect arrhythmias, abnormal heart patterns or murmur, whose only requirement is to be worn on the user's body.


Another organisation researching in the field of ultrasound, in collaboration with Google, is the North-American firm Northwestern Medicine, whose work is focused on applying AI to enhancing mothers' health by means of developing tools capable of identifying risks during the first stages of pregnancy (10) (11).

Image of a researcher at Northwestern Medicine training the algorithmic model to identify patterns in foetuses in early stages using ultrasound and deep learning systems. Source: Northwestern Medicine


Additionally, Google is also working on the optimization of its search engine to ensure users find more relevant information on their healthcare providers. For instance, the teams developing the search engines have recently launched new functions to allow users to make more informed decisions, making it easier to find the medical providers included in their health insurance package.


THE METAVERSE AND DIGITAL HEALTH


Lastly, the scope of eHealth must necessarily comprise the topic of the moment at any innovation forum, regardless of the sector: the advent of the metaverse.

A great deal is being said about the transformative power that this technological disruption has over every aspect of human life and the economy. Its potential impact is similar to that caused by the Internet or mobile telephones.


From the health viewpoint, the impact of the metaverse is also directly related to Big Data. Extended reality systems (augmented and virtual reality) offer the capacity to record, in real time, far greater quantities of personal data. This opens up a huge window of opportunity for recording patterns and physical habits by means of constant monitoring with connected sensors throughout an individual's daily activity within the metaverse (12).


Though still seeming to belong to the world of science fiction, many of the systems currently being developed in the field of IoT healthcare devices and wearables may end up becoming part of the metaverse generating solutions for the automated, constant and real-time monitoring of each individual and the provision of immediate, automated and adaptive treatments, adjusted to each person's unique condition, on the basis of their permanently updated medical patterns.


A further opportunity offered by the metaverse is its capacity to enhance remote healthcare services, thus contributing, thanks to advances in virtual reality, to more realistic simulation of face-to-face care. Likewise, virtual hospitals may be set up in the metaverse that people can visit to receive healthcare through their avatars (in which all their medical patterns are recorded). The metaverse would thus establish a bridge between the real world and the virtual world.


One example of the application of virtual reality in the healthcare environment is the project Immersive Rehab, short-listed in the programme Distrito eHealth (20), consisting in a virtual reality solution for neuro-rehabilitation in patients with significant limitations to their upper limb mobility, resulting from cerebrovascular accidents, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and spinal lesions.


In this light, the metaverse is a field offering many more opportunities to explore and it remains to be seen how innovation will come about as the metaverse unfolds and the expected impact is materialised.

 

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