Health tech is revolutionizing an industry trying to keep up, as others join in
The healthcare industry has been through a lot over the past two years, with COVID-19 patients flooding hospitals and placing doctors, nurses, and other workers on the pandemic’s front lines.
Amidst the scourge, healthcare organizations and professionals have embraced innovation and technological advancements during the darkest days of the global health crisis.
These advancements will continue to positively disrupt the industry long after the pandemic subsides, as artificial intelligence figures to play a bigger and bigger role going forward.
Riding the Wave
A wave of virtual and digital tools is expected to replace older methods of care, with medical robots also appearing to be in the not-so-distant future.
“Traditional healthcare is transforming into a patient-centric, consumer-led model, as education, internet access, and wearable devices are allowing patients to actively participating in their medical journey,” Jemima Walker, an analyst at GlobalData, told Express Healthcare. “As the pandemic eases, virtual care will still be in demand.”
Despite the increased popularity and acceptance of getting treated virtually, many patients still want to be able to see their doctor in person, with 24% of GlobalData respondents saying they would like to do both after the global health crisis subsides.
A swarm of new technologies, such as 5G, augmented reality, autonomous vehicles, cyber security, and cloud computing embraces will help healthcare providers in a number of different areas be able to fulfill that desire, Walker says.
“There are opportunities for digital and virtual tools to help in many healthcare services, including mental health treatments, chronic pain management, stroke rehabilitation, opioid addiction therapy, and even in the development of autonomous, connected ambulances,” Walker told Express Healthcare.
The drug industry is among those AI is expected to revolutionize within healthcare. The potential to shorten timelines for new discoveries and repurposing of existing drugs is well within grasp.
AI should also be able to enhance tools used to monitor patients remotely, improve the efficiency of supply chains and modernize clinical trial models by improving patient recruitment, retention, and overall design.
Incorporating AI technology into day-to-day operations has become an increasingly popular option for pharmaceutical, healthcare, and medical device companies, as they begin to recognize the potential it can have.
According to GlobalData, filings mentioning AI from healthcare companies increased by more than 50% from 2018-21. The data and analytics company also forecasts that the market for AI in healthcare will increase from its 2019 levels of $1.6 billion to $5.7 billion in 2025.
The one thing holding AI back from reaching its true potential at the moment is regulation, most notably for medical devices.
Companies that plan to incorporate AI into their health tech must follow stringent guidelines, and those who fail to comply can either be faced with large penalties or disallowed from entering the market entirely.
Another promising area of health tech is the arrival of medical robots, which can be used for several different purposes, including surgical assistance.
The downside to medical robots is high costs, however, with Walker noting that, while there is expected to be 3.7 million surgical procedures done by robots in 2022, the price tag and need for training has discouraged many.
“The high costs of medical robots, and the additional training often required, will prevent quick, widespread adoption,” Walker told Express Healthcare.
Despite the hesitancy, Walker says she expects healthcare organizations will ultimately follow the lead of early adopters en masse.
“For-profit entities will act as early leaders — particularly in the outpatient ‘same day’ surgery center sector,” Walker told Express Healthcare. “Early adopters will then lead to an explosion of adoption within hospitals and more public-based healthcare systems such as the NHS.”
Elberton Memorial Hospital in Elberton, Ga., is one facility that has already embraced robot technology, using a pair of robots which are able to sanitize surfaces by using UV light that deactivates pathogens, including COVID-19.
The robots used by Elberton are able to disinfect a hospital room in under 15 minutes, which helps make rooms available faster and gives nurses more time to help more patients.
While not a hospital, a Washington, D.C., retirement community has also embraced robotics, introducing a robot to residents who is in charge of leading bingo and trivia nights.
Named Stevie, the robot is able to patrol hallways to make sure no residents are improperly wandering. Stevie performs a variety of cleaning duties and can even speak multiple languages.
For residents who may be hearing-impaired, Stevie is able to display subtitles on it screen.
“It’s a force multiplier for care staff,” Conor McGinn, an engineer who helped create Stevie, told Nature. “It’s not to replace people, but it’s to augment how people care for people.”
Meanwhile, in December, nursing staff at Shannon Medical Center in San Angelo, Texas, welcomed a robot, named Moxi, which helps them out with their day-to-day duties.
Moxi is able to complete tasks such as distributing personal protection equipment, deliver lab samples and medication, and pick up supplies from around different areas of the hospital.
Steven Short, Shannon Medical Center’s director of innovation, told FOX West Texas that Moxi will be a benefit to the facility.
“It’s going to be a big staff satisfaction and time-saver for our nurses and allow them to spend more time caring for our patients which is what we want our nurses to do,” Short said.
As is the case with any industry that is still in the growing stages, a number of health tech startups have recently entered the sector.
In the UK, investment in health tech attracted nine figures worth of investments in 2021, while employing 132,000 individuals.
The challenges facing health tech startups are significant, however. They must be able to connect their data between external health systems and their devices in a fast and reliable manner — and lives may depend on that they do.
New companies must also be able to incorporate their own data into an abundance of existing clinical data, while being able to share their individual calculations with other organizations and healthcare systems.
“Interoperability is often overlooked in the excitement of getting a business started, yet it is key to getting health tech startups off the ground,” wrote Jon Payne, a manager of sales engineering at InterSystems, in a column for Medtech News.
Companies must be prepared to have their data secure, compliant, and available for other organizations to view and share, says Payne, who stresses the importance of data in the healthcare industry today.
“The ability to easily share data between healthcare organisations and clinical systems ensures a greater level of co-ordinated care and improved patient outcomes,” Payne writes.
The challenges associated with launching a healthcare startup has not deterred investors. Globally, $51.3 billion was pumped into companies last year, according to London & Partners (LP) and Dealroom.co.
One of those companies is MeMed, an Israeli firm which has a mission of developing diagnostic solutions that can monitor the immune system.
MeMed announced in January that it has raised $93 million in funding, bringing its total to more than $200 million, which will help accelerate its goal of commercialization and expand its operations to the U.S.
“We are grateful to our investors for their support and will leverage the funds, the recent FDA clearance, and our growing network of partnerships to provide broad patient access to our technology, as well as expand our product portfolio of pioneering host response solutions,” said MeMed co-founder and CEO Eran Edan.
The company recently received approval from the FDA for its MeMed BV test, which will help healthcare providers tell the difference between bacterial and viral infections.
MeMed has also developed a test to determine the severity of COVID-19, which has been cleared for use in Europe and will help healthcare providers be able to predict more severe outcomes for patients.