Digital health has the potential to vastly improve healthcare services, but up until recently, it hasn’t been much of a priority for investors. If anything positive has risen from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that it’s opened up a new opportunity to revisit how we think of healthcare, from telemedicine to research and data to collaboration. As former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Here are some of the top eHealth trends we predict will dominate in 2021.
1. The expansion of telemedicine
Telemedicine, or the practice of clinicians seeing patients virtually rather than in brick and mortar offices and hospitals, has increased tremendously during the pandemic as populations around the world have limited physical encounters. This practice has demonstrated that remote consultations are not only possible, but also easy and often preferable.
Some experts say that this is only the beginning, and soon the scale of telemedicine will increase.
“It’s about a broader scope of care and new patient groups,” said Nasim Farrokhnia, chair of Swedish eHealth doctors, at a recent German-Swedish HealthTech event, part of the German-Swedish Innovation Partnership that is currently focusing on exchanging ideas between startups and businesses in digital health.
“We’ll see [this trend move to] our clinicians and physicians beyond our first line of primary care clinics to include specialist care,” said Farrokhnia. This includes “other healthcare professionals such as nurses, midwives, nutritionists, and not to forget about all the good work our psychologists have been doing to treat mental health issues.”
Aside from remote consultations, experts say that we’re already seeing increased use of medical devices at home, like remote monitoring of cancer patients via the increased use of sensors.
2. Virtual reality in the healthcare market
The global market of digital health VR is expected to grow to $2.4 billion by 2026, due to its potential to eliminate the need for certain medications or surgeries. VR technology is being used currently to treat chronic pain, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
3. National digital health portals, and the big data that comes with it
Countries around the world are working on more comprehensive and accessible electronic health records. Sweden’s already got it figured out. In Sweden, all citizens and residents have a personal identification number, known as the Swedish PIN, that is used for all healthcare documentation. Researchers that have access to these digital health portals can revel in a treasure trove of data.
During the height of the pandemic, Sweden set up an Intensive Care Registry to collect data on the cases of coronavirus that end up in Swedish intensive care units.
“This enabled us to follow the development of the corona crisis in society, and it was used nearly daily when reporting to people in the country how the crisis was developing,” said Annemieke Ålenius, Director of the Swedish eHealth Agency. “All prescriptions and dispatches are electronic, which made it easy to keep track of the stock of medicines.”
Generally, there are many benefits to having access to a unified system of patient records, including a lower rate of medication errors, the facilitation of preventive care, and more accurate staffing.
4. The power of AI and digital health
Artificial intelligence will play a huge role in the digital transformation of healthcare. In fact, the AI healthcare market is expected to exceed $34 billion by 2025.
Right now, most patients have probably interacted with or heard of some form of AI, like the PARO robotic seal for dementia patients, or chatbots that offer services from customer service to therapy. But the future of AI is in precision medicine, genomics, drug discovery, and medical imaging. Take cancer treatments, for example. By using AI’s pattern recognition, doctors can prescribe personalized treatment plans tailored to a patient’s genetic makeup and lifestyle.
In addition, pharma and biotech companies use machine learning algorithms in order to shorten the drug development cycle. And just recently, researchers in the United States developed an AI that accurately recognizes and diagnoses COVID-19, even in asymptomatic patients, just by the sound of a cough.
Overall, the global AI in the healthcare diagnosis market was valued at nearly US $3.7 billion in 2019, and it is expected to reach almost US $67 billion by 2027, and startups around the globe are already jumping at the opportunity to create the next disruptive piece of healthcare tech.
5. Cross border collaboration of digital health
The pandemic has shown that countries are facing similar healthcare challenges, not only in relation to coronavirus, but also in terms of delivering good quality and efficient care to people in need, such as demographic changes an increase in the number of chronically ill, according to Julia Hagen, Director of Regulatory and Politics at the Health Innovation Hub in Germany.
“It’s a good reminder that we really need to build a European ecosystem of digital health together,” she told TNW, highlighting that the partnership between Sweden and Germany should set as an example for the rest of the European Union.
“We’re in this together. The whole world is in this together,” confirmed Ålenius. “We are dependent on each other, we can learn from each other, we can exchange data, and create different kinds of dashboards to understand which countries are having problems at the moment. But also showing the importance of working together for handling cybersecurity. We have to be very careful with the data we are handling.”
6. Apps, wearables, and self-monitoring solutions
During the event, Patrik Sundström, Head of Digital Health at the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, noted that providers are accelerating solutions for self-monitoring for patients with chronic diseases, which has the potential to save money as the management and treatment of chronic illnesses accounts for around 80% of the cost of healthcare.
Self-monitoring applications come in many forms, but one that’s seeing promising returns is wearable devices, a market that’s expected to reach more than $27 million in 2023, up from $8 million in 2017. From heart rate sensors and exercise trackers to sweat meters that help diabetics monitor blood sugar level and oximeters that monitor the amount of oxygen in the blood for respiratory patients, the wearable market is empowering people to take charge of their own healthcare.
In Germany, there’s promise that apps that put care into the patients’ hands can be covered by health insurance. The country passed its Digital Care Act in November 2019, giving doctors the ability to prescribe medical apps — like Kalmeda, a guideline-based behavioral therapy for chronic tinnitus exposure — that public health insurance will reimburse.
7. Digital health hubs and startup ecosystems
“Innovation and growth happens much faster in places where you have a critical mass and access to key players, everything from investors to partners,” said Paul Beatus, CEO & Co-founder of H2 Health Hub, a digital health coworking space in Stockholm. “In places like hubs you also get the chance to build relationships and create connections.”
Beatus said that his company looks to startups for the most innovative digital solutions.
“In most countries, there is no established process for how to buy, implement, and evaluate digital health technologies on a wider scale,” he said. “We find that the true experts on this are those startups that manage to successfully navigate the systems and implement digital solutions with good effect.”
Germany and Sweden are well known for hosting digital health hubs that return excellent outcomes. For example, the Digital Health Hub at Nuremberg/Erlangen has an incredibly fertile ground for new innovations to come to market, with over 500 medical technology companies, SMEs and global players, 65 hospitals, 80 research institutions, and the Friedrich Alexander University.
If there were ever a time to invest in digital health, it’s now. The momentum is here to use technology to collaborate with other innovators and improve the products and services in the digital healthcare space, thus improving the lives of millions of people.
This article is brought to you by the Digital Hub Initiative.