Over the past decade, mobile technology has transformed the world we live in – changing everything from the way we watch television to the way we hail taxis. Now a new revolution is set to change healthcare for ever – one driven by mobile technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies.
Jilani Gulam, chief executive of Health iQ, says: “Healthcare now is at a similar point to when smartphones first launched.
“Those devices would not have been possible without the convergence of technologies – cheaper storage, smaller processing chipsets and longer battery life.
“Today, healthcare is at that point. The emergence of big data, cloud technologies, smartphone adoption and an explosion of data capture suddenly enable data to be linked together and processed for new insights.”
This is the crest of a wave. In the coming years, 5G will enable surgeons to perform robotic operations from other continents. Augmented reality will change our understanding of the human body. AI will help us fight illnesses that have defeated even the best care givers. Everything is changing, and it’s all down to those little ones and zeroes flying through the air.
Technologies already familiar to us, like wearable fitness monitors and health apps, are the start of a transformation that will save thousands of lives
Duncan Banks, lecturer in biomedical sciences at the Open University, has been investigating the use of health trackers made by companies such as Samsung in the UK – and says his over-55 patients respond well to using such gadgets.
Why does this matter? Because electronics consultancy Plextek says that the use of such devices could cut NHS costs per patient by up to 60pc.
Patients spent a third less time in hospital on average and deaths from septic shock fell by 60pc
“Virtual” visits from doctors, delivered via portable video devices, can save lives, says Kelly White, London general manager of WWT Asynchrony Labs. Her company’s connected kits come with sensitive two-way cameras for patients to talk to medical staff, along with health monitors for blood pressure and blood oxygenation.
“For those older people who live alone,” Ms White says, “having a doctor regularly checking in helps to avoid the tragic instances of people suffering strokes, heart attacks or falls, and lying unnoticed at home.”
Mercy Virtual, which trialled virtual check-ups in the US, found that patients spent a third less time in hospital on average and that deaths from septic shock fell by 60pc.
Within hospitals too, outcomes are changing. With everything from hospital beds to scanners now connected using technologies such as Bluetooth tags, hospitals can track patients and treatments in a way that was impossible before
Morten Illum, EMEA vice-president for Aruba, says: “Patients are going in for operations equipped with real-time location tracking systems, which then inform their loved ones when they’re successfully out of surgery. Other important uses include doctors accessing X-ray data from their mobile devices at your bedside.”
In one hospital in New York, the use of such internet of things (IoT) technology cuts waiting times by four hours.
Research by Aruba found that six out of 10 global healthcare organisations already use IoT devices and nine out of 10 will have adopted them by 2019. Globally, the healthcare industry will invest $410bn (£300bn) in IoT devices and services by 2022, according to analyst Grand View Research.
And it’s not just the IoT. Other technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality are increasing affordable – a Samsung Gear VR headset costs around £100 – and are on the cusp of having a real impact on healthcare, according to Professor Bob Stone of the University of Birmingham, a VR pioneer who has worked with the technology for three decades.
Top five technologies that are going to change healthcare
Professor Stone is using VR headsets in Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth hospital to help patients recover after complex limb injuries – letting them pedal their way around a virtual version of the south coast, for example.
He adds: “We’re also combining virtual reality with augmented reality at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine. We recreate the interior of a Chinook in VR, which used to take a very large and expensive wooden box, and let trainees practise there. We use a low-cost, off-the-shelf VR headset which is very cheap.”
Senior executives’ time would be better spent trying to influence rather than prohibit, notes Andrew Rogoyski, VP of cyber security Services at IT analyst CGI. “One of the biggest challenges [for businesses] is the sheer pace of development and change. Technology creates opportunities that have to be pursued within days or weeks. Often security is short-circuited out of the adoption of new technologies.
Augmented reality will also be used in supporting surgeons, Professor Stone says. “You can take 3D scans and CAT scans and superimpose them on the patient, improving the surgeon’s awareness. That’s a done deal.”
These new devices herald remarkable changes but the real revolution will come, thanks to the data generated from them
Artificial intelligence (AI) is often mistakenly associated with robots and sci-fi, when it’s actually something we use every day: it’s what helps Google guess what you’re searching for and your phone’s personal assistant understand your voice. But it’s about to do much more.
“AI looks for patterns in data and uses them to predict, prevent or treat diseases,” says Dr Ben Maruthappu, co-founder and CEO of home-care start-up Cera. “Software collecting information about patients recovering after surgery will monitor their blood pressure (BP) and heart rate (HR), and learn from observing the same scenario tens of thousands of times that when BP and HR behave in a certain way, there is a high likelihood that a patient is going into shock. An intervention, such as intravenous fluids, will be necessary. This is known as machine learning.”
This live-saving technology is already in use on recovery wards. The real prize is when it rolls out to GP surgeries.
“We’re on the verge of a data-sharing revolution in healthcare,” according to Professor Adam Beaumont, founder and CEO of business communications services firm aql. “The historical approach to doctor-patient confidentiality has been to keep healthcare records under lock and key. But the best way to treat a patient is to unlock the data and cross-reference a patient’s file with others to gain better insights.”
Prof Beaumont says that systems need to be put in place so patients can be confident their data is being shared securely but, once this technology is in place, “We have the foundations for interchanging and combining data from patient records, self-measurement and social networks to create reliable, enriched data which can then be used to learn more about the human condition.
“Imagine, for example, how many X-rays a radiologist will see in their lifetime. A machine could absorb this experience in minutes: the data and notes of every radiologist on the planet.”
Apps which are changing healthcare
Combining this data will accelerate the pace at which the healthcare industry operates, according to Alvaro Gomez-Meana, worldwide chief technologist for healthcare at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
Gomez-Meana says, “If you were to really crunch the data, there is so much knowledge available.
“Up until now, everything has been done in many ways manually – each doctor is really applying the knowledge he or she has personally. It’s not really industrialised.
“If you were able to really digest the data, it would have tremendous power. I think of the model of air transport. If there’s an accident, within weeks, almost everybody knows what the reasons were and how to avoid another similar accident.
“Currently, that doesn’t happen in healthcare. Clinical pathways often take 10 or 12 years to change. If there was a worldwide lake of information researchers could use, it would have tremendous power – allowing new ways to discover treatments and to improve the treatments we have.”
The lifesaving benefits of new technology may be vast, but can we trust doctors and hospitals with our data?
In May this year, the NHS was hit by the WannaCry cyber attack, which paralysed trusts across Britain using hacking tools believed to have been developed as a “cyber weapon”.
No patient data was leaked in the attack, and affected computers were back online within days. But the attack highlighted the very real risks faced by hospitals.
The sheer amount of data available to medical professionals – and to patients – will require both doctors and patients to think carefully about how this data is shared and protected, according to Greg McEwen, healthcare expert and partner at legal firm BLM.
Wannacry in Numbers
Mr McEwen says, “These days, our personal data is a valuable commodity and we would be wise to question who might have access to it and to what end.
“In an age in which the combination of data and technology can help predict with increasing accuracy the chances of developing a serious disease, how would you feel about the prospect of that information falling into the hands of a third party, perhaps an insurer or your employer? Would you even want to know yourself?”
Eileen Haggerty works for NetScout, which provides computer network systems to hospitals. She says security is an increasingly important part of the job for hospital CIOs.
“Protecting patient care in today’s hyper-connected world depends almost entirely on protecting and optimising the network and the services that run through them,” she says. “There is a great need for network administrators to be vigilant and disciplined – not only for performance, but to prevent security disruptions.
“CIOs and CCIOs (chief clinical information officers) in healthcare organisations are faced with the pressing need to keep up with the pace of technology. As a result, they’re introducing next-generation technologies in an attempt to improve overall efficiency, speed and security.”
Healthcare is changing, and new technology is once again going to change human life for the better, just as antibiotics and anaesthesia did in previous centuries. With hospitals and manufacturers working together to ensure data remains secure, it seems the future is bright. For all of us.