Tech Healthcare Trends of the Next Decade: 2021 and beyond

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More than two decades after the start of the 21st century, we can confidently say that we live in a digital data-centric world. For the healthcare sector, this means that digitization has inevitably become a baseline requirement, along with all other practical breakthroughs that we have witnessed over the last several years.

But even if the march of technological progress has been steady, it’s great that the direction has been steadily forward. Within this forward motion patterns and cycles do occur, that create tech healthcare trends. And not surprisingly, these trends are dependent on industry-wide technological breakthroughs.

Preliminary Pandemic Response Systems

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In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare systems worldwide were exposed to their fundamental flaws that lay dormant within systems and processes. Medical organizations across the globe scrambled to provide a patchwork solution, while vaccines were still being developed and tested. We already knew the theoretical risks. But, it wasn’t until a pandemic happened, that countermeasures were usually only limited to higher research authorities.

And so, one of the easiest tech healthcare trends would be the development of any concept that would actively prepare humanity for any major pandemic. The medical industry would most definitely not want the level of unpreparedness associated with the COVID-19 pandemic to happen again.

These technologies, or technological implementations, in particular, would become the backbone of a preliminary pandemic response system in the future:

  1. Mobile device apps – while we have many communication options in the form of smartphone apps today, its future iterations might have additional features that would be optimized for a pandemic outbreak. More specifically, a passive function for tracking (general public) mobility patterns, symptom reporting, case archives, and telemedicine sessions. Sure, privacy would be a secondary concern. But if properly used in an outbreak, it should become a vital data source in assessing the current severity levels, giving indirect guidance on what to do step-by-step.
  2. Machine learning – the second level of response to a pandemic outbreak is using all of the gathered information to build epidemic intelligence tools. Ideally, this should be powered by neural network AI that already has “experience” with this kind of medical crisis. A robust machine learning tool purposely built for real-world data-based pandemic simulations would be an asset in more precisely predicting its course and direction.
  3. Syndromic surveillance via social media – and with a well-trained machine learning system, the next step of observation can be taken. Just like how Facebook or Twitter can be effectively used to predict trends, the ability to detect disease outbreaks using syndromic surveillance will also be valuable to a future pandemic situation. Even better, unlike data collected from more private forms of communication, this is largely taken from public sources and is thus a lesser concern for security and privacy.

Lastly, with all of the enhanced tools used to assess data gathered from an outbreak, the trend goes for faster and better diagnosis, along with a clearer visualization of the entire pandemic (as a data set) for human analysis.

Highly Integrated Telemedicine

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Apart from global medical emergencies, more integrated internet infrastructure in general, would still inevitably drive medical consultation and examination services into more remote telecommunication options. Telemedicine and telehealth, by themselves, have already been growing over the course of the last decades. In fact, industries related to both services are expected to experience a 500 per cent growth within the years post-2021.

The advantages of telemedicine are quite obvious. Near-instant communication with patients, potentially everywhere and anywhere, is a privilege today that you cannot simply ignore. That being said, the future trend for telemedicine isn’t just to make the platform more reliable and convenient with newer technologies such as 5G networks. It is also set to integrate all sorts of healthcare-related technologies that rely on the internet in one way or another.

For instance, remote monitoring systems can easily be synced with an online check-up session for better medical data analysis. Various wearable technologies in use today can even make it possible for medical professionals to keep track of their patients outside regular consultation hours.

As for the specific advantages of highly integrated telemedicine, a few notable things come to mind:

  • So long as access to the internet is available, patients have universal access to healthcare.
  • Costs are overall reduced due to more regulated advice and quick communication access.
  • Doctor-patient relationships are enhanced via consistent communication.
  • Consultation services are further streamlined; long queues are reduced during busy hours.

As these communication platforms become connected to even more systems, software, and devices, the benefits should eventually drive telemedicine to become a common, if not a baseline, requirement for all healthcare services.

AI-Powered Healthcare at Any Scale

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Artificial intelligence has already revolutionized healthcare in many ways today in almost all aspects of managing and processing digital information, anywhere from EHR analysis to medical staff management. AI has also broken ground in many fronts of current medical research, with the most advanced ones showcasing some truly amazing feats of function and analysis.

But perhaps the most promising aspect of artificial intelligence in influencing future tech healthcare trends is the ability to empower any medical service at any scale. It does so by either removing the human element from the more menial management tasks or substituting the human element when there is a considerable lack of professional manpower.

This results in opportunities for smaller practices to thrive with competitive operational capacity alongside other larger established medical service providers.

Extrapolate this by a few years down the road, and it is plausible to consider that economic competition between AI services would further drive down costs. The potential exception to this prediction is in the form of specialized functions such as AI-diagnosed radiology.

As for breakthrough research in AI medicine, we would initially see limitations in its practical application. But that is simply because newer technologies, in general, tend to lack the infrastructure needed to make it affordable enough for its first few iterations. Or, that some of these applications are only optimized at specific points, such as deep learning/neural network-AI-based drug discovery.

Most of these revolutionary AI achievements in medicine already possess the inherent merit to be developed further. As such, it is only a matter of time before AI achievements in medicine are implemented on much larger scales in the real world. That is if consistency doesn’t prove to be an issue, of course.

Advanced Autonomous Healthcare

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Telemedicine and remote monitoring systems improve ongoing treatment stability and allow for constant observation of chronic disease patterns. But, what if you don’t particularly have any serious medical condition? What if you are a relatively healthy person that does not require any immediate medical attention?

This is where the idea of autonomous healthcare  (not to be confused with the medical company of the same name) comes in. Or, to the pessimistic, yet another way for medical companies to monitor us through constant physiological surveillance. We already have several monitoring systems that function the same way. For one, health trackers are the most common and most integrated medical devices amongst the multitude of everyday tech items we use.

Today, the purpose of tracking your health statistics is mostly because of personal health maintenance goals. A user wants to achieve a certain health target. For example, maybe you want to prevent falling behind your fitness plan. Additionally, a company employee may be incentivized to follow the company’s fitness system for specific benefits.

In other cases more specific devices or features, such as pocket EEGs and heart rate monitors, could be used as an emergency “beacon” to improve medical emergency response rates. Instead of someone having to correctly assess that a person is already in the middle of suffering a stroke, the health trackers they are wearing would instantly give the warning signal at the earliest sign of it occurring.

Of course, if implemented at current development levels today, inaccuracies would most likely contribute to a good number of false alarms. But in the future, when it is far more advanced and developed, it should be able to perform at its theoretical optimum.

Of course, people have always pointed out that health-tracking features, more often than not, suffer from the disadvantage of being highly dependent on the frequency of use. This is precisely why such technologies need to be a feature available on more commonly used portable devices. Thankfully, this is one of the healthcare technology trends that is evolving right now. It is expected that tech companies with the healthcare sector would follow through with better integration concepts, potentially connecting autonomous healthcare to other trends mentioned in this article.

True Personalized Healthcare and Medicine

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The pharmaceutical industry is a multi-trillion-dollar entity that holds the world’s ability to treat ailments using tested and approved medical products. But while the generic nature of these items can take advantage of our modern era’s industrialization capacity, more and more research is pointing to the benefits of personalized healthcare and medicine. This too is one of many tech healthcare trends that will most likely play a major role in how people access healthcare in the future:

Drugs that Work Best, Exclusively for You

The term “personalized medicine” has been exclusively given to types of treatments that make use of the patient’s specific genetic attributes. For example, the drug Trastuzumab can only be administered to breast cancer patients if they have been tested for over-expression of the HER2/neu receptor protein.

In more recent years, this has been extended to developing specific medications created from patients’ actual genetic data. This is usually achieved today by using any number of DNA-slicing tools, the most popular of which is the CRISPR-Cas9 immune response DNA sequence. Part of the genetic data is cut and used to auto-target specific parts that need to be destroyed or treated.

Sickle cell disease has been one of the more recent diseases that has been extensively researched in personalized medicine with regards to modern gene-editing techniques. Many competing CRISPR-based startups have developed various gene therapies, in a bid to eradicate this genetically-inherited illness. Or at least, to mitigate its symptoms to the point that patients can live relatively normal lives.

Customized Body Repair

On a relatively larger scale of personalized healthcare and treatment, comes the technology of 3D printing. The benefits of 3D printing in medicine have already been discussed through and through by many different sources and you can take a look at my exploration into 3D printing in health care here. But to recap, here’s a summary of how 3D printing continues to be one of the biggest healthcare technology trends today:

  • Cost of prosthetic devices is reduced dramatically, thus improving availability.
  • Bioprinting is a more direct, hands-on approach to cell regeneration treatments.
  • Modelling body parts allows doctors to train exclusively in treating a specific patient.
  • Multiple-dosage drugs can be “manufactured” locally at very precise measurements.
  • Full replication of a patient’s specific organs is theoretically possible someday.

One very important disclaimer though. 3D printing, as a research technology, will continue at a slow pace, even with all of these already established applications. Except for gene-editing, other tech healthcare trends that have been mentioned within this article are likely to be developed to a practical application phase before any of the endgame applications of 3D printing can be truly realized.

Lower Costs: Not a Trend, But a Result

With the overall improvements in healthcare availability, one is inclined to wonder how tech healthcare trends will impact healthcare costs once these trends reach mass adoption. As we can see with the healthcare technology trends mentioned, a lowered cost for patients will always be part of the bigger picture for advanced healthcare solutions, however, it is safe to assume that initially, the best treatments are likely to be unfordable for the vast majority of the world’s population

It is important to point out that lowered cost by itself is not the trend. It is merely part of how these technologies will progress. Early adoption always takes the brunt of the highest cost for every breakthrough concept in technology. The Tesla Roadster carries the upcoming Tesla Y. Oculus Rift DK1 is the legacy of the Oculus Quest 2. And so, the same goes for future healthcare and treatment options. They are likely to be carried by the first exorbitantly priced therapies and diagnoses using technologies like CRISPR and DeepMind.

All sources are provided as hyperlinks within the article.

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