The weakness of the present healthcare system revealed by the Covid-19 crisis, along with the rise in chronic diseases associated with lifestyle changes and a rapidly ageing population worldwide will shape the future of healthcare. Next Generation Research Analyst Dr. Damien Ng took a close look at recent developments in digital healthcare, genomics and extended longevity.
- Digital health: The pandemic will accelerate the further digitalisation of the healthcare industry, particularly with a focus on telemedicine, mobile health and medical technology (medtech).
- Genomics: The search for Covid-19 treatments will encourage more research and development into genomics, heralding in an era of tailor-made gene-based diagnosis and treatments for infectious and other non-infectious, deadly diseases.
- Extended longevity: The vulnerability of old age to the infectious disease has led to growing calls for better nursing and long-term care facilities, as well as a greater focus on preventive measures via health monitoring and personalised treatments associated with ageing.
Although the Covid-19 crisis has stretched medical resources around the world to breaking point, it has also led to a boom in online medical services. As personal visits to physicians have been rendered more difficult due to a raft of restrictions like quarantining and social distancing to break the chain of infection, the ushering-in of telemedicine in the form of online consultation services has undoubtedly helped homebound patients to seek medical advice on the internet. In other words, the Covid-19 pandemic has not only accelerated the adoption of telemedicine among the healthcare community as a way to deliver care to patients, but it has also enabled patients to talk with their doctors about any suspicious viral symptoms, including chills, cough, muscle pain, sore throat, or loss of taste or smell.
Mobile-health technologies have also played a significant role during the pandemic, since a public health emergency requires an innovative mode of care delivery. Specifically, medical professionals have turned to tools that enable them to remotely monitor their patients without having to come into contact with them, thus preventing the further spread of the novel coronavirus. For example, patients with less severe cases of the Covid-19 infection can be kept at home rather than at hospitals, thus preserving the precious beds for those with more severe symptoms. Furthermore, some of these homebound patients may even be fitted with wearable devices that continuously track and identify any signs of aggravating affection through heart rates, oxygen saturation levels, activity level and quality of sleep. Through a daily questionnaire on an app, healthcare providers can easily access patients’ information via a secure dashboard, thereby providing alerts and guidance in terms of priority for immediate medical action. Such an approach gives patients peace of mind, since they are aware that their well-being is being monitored.
Furthermore, hospital readmissions may be required for some post-operative patients due to the onset of health complications, despite the best efforts of medical professionals. This could include cardiac patients suffering from infection at the site of a surgical incision or discharged patients experiencing indistinct symptoms such as dizziness or a spike in blood pressure. As most of these concerns could be monitored and effectively treated without hospitalisation, physicians are increasingly turning to mobile-health technologies to minimise readmissions and improve outcomes.
Medtech is a broad sector that encompasses the use of any technology that can save or improve the quality of life of individuals suffering from a multitude of health conditions. Simply put, medtech may range from familiar objects such as syringes and hearing aids to more sophisticated devices such as medical robots, body scanners, intraocular lens and replacement joints for knees and hips.
For example, the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis has revealed many countries’ willingness to deploy medtech as part of the national efforts to deal with a public health emergency situation. In China, for instance, medical robots are used to provide support to frontline medical workers by involving them in the cleaning and disinfection of hospital wards and publicly shared spaces, measurement of patients’ temperature, distribution of medical supplies to patients, delivery of food to both patients and health workers, reduction of the workload of medical staff, and minimising of contact between people so as to lower the risk of cross infection. Other examples include Belgium, Italy and South Korea, which have also turned to medtech to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. In particular, medical robots have been deployed in hospitals and public places of these countries to distribute hand sanitiser and to ensure that face masks are properly worn.
It may be easy for us to get emotionally worked up as a result of the intensive media coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic, along with the unprecedented implementation of lockdowns worldwide, and think that Covid-19 is the world’s only health challenge. But of course, medical professionals are also silently fighting battles against other deadly diseases, and it is vital not to lose sight of that fact. In particular, cell and gene therapies have increasingly emerged as a promising treatment option for a myriad of complex clinical conditions. These may include genetic disorders that arise from malignant mutations in our DNA, such as cancer and sickle-cell disease, as well as non-genetically acquired diseases, such as Ebola, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the bubonic plague.
Another widespread and lethal disease is cancer. According to the WHO, 19 million people became ill with cancer worldwide in 2019. Of these 19 million, 10 million died from it. Compare these mind-boggling numbers with those of Covid-19 deaths, currently under one million.
The grim statistics notwithstanding, research shows an encouraging trend of a gradually declining number of people dying from cancer over the years, although the incidence of the disease is markedly on the rise worldwide. This reversal in mortality rate is primarily made possible thanks to the tremendous medical progress in diagnosis and treatment through a combination of gene therapy, precision medicine and artificial intelligence.
Through artificial intelligence, new relationships between tumour genes, cancer growth and specific drugs can be determined by churning through millions of genetic data and patient outcomes. It may thus be a thing of the past that cancer patients receive a one-size-fits-all regime of chemotherapy and radiation. Instead, doctors are increasingly turning to precision medicine to offer personalised solutions based on genetic tests, which are derived from both the patients and the cancer tumour. This way, the medical specialists can determine the exact drugs or treatments that offer the best chance of survival for patients.
The growing prevalence of chronic diseases associated with the increasing share of the greying population will have profound implications for the healthcare systems for decades to come. It is therefore in this context that assistive technologies that enable healthcare professionals to continuously monitor the health conditions of the elderly should become even more important in the future.
Older patients can benefit in a number of ways from the progressive uptake of digital-health technologies. Not only can healthcare specialists help ageing individuals reduce the likelihood of contracting more severe forms of chronic diseases through the early detection of health abnormalities, but hospital admissions can also be avoided, thereby relieving pressure from healthcare systems and keeping a lid on burgeoning medical costs.
Thanks to digital-health technologies, data related to patients’ blood oxygen saturation, heart rate and blood pressure can be measured via remote monitoring tools such as wearables and be transmitted from the comfort of the patients’ homes to their physicians in real time. In other words, senior citizens no longer have to undertake long journeys to see their medical providers or endure long queues and big crowds at clinics and hospitals for simple medical examinations, especially in countries where geographical constraints, public transport and healthcare systems pose additional challenges.
The road ahead
The future of healthcare will be shaped by favourable structural trends and developments in the industry. In particular, areas that are related to digital health, genomics and extended longevity should see further upside potential over the longer term, given the political tailwinds, momentous demographic forces around the world, the rise of chronic diseases associated with ageing, as well as the growing financial burden of medical care.
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From digital health to genomics – which trends will transform our healthcare systems? We have a look at what lies ahead.