From real-time diagnoses aided by machine learning to wearable devices that track and transmit patient data from a distance, a host of new and evolving technologies are poised to influence care delivery in 2020.
Intended to maintain good health, not to react to an existing illness, these investments are designed to reduce hospitalizations and related costs.
“We’re seeing a shift away from using technology to advance specialty care and high-tech medicine and a shift toward using technology to enable prevention and primary care,” Dr. Felix Matthews, a managing director and physician leader at Deloitte, tells HealthTech.
The continuing challenge for hospitals, he adds, is finding the right tools and level of investment to tackle risks and reach enough patients to justify the effort.
Matthews spoke about five healthcare trends and their potential implications in 2020:
1. Wearables Will Bring Deep Data Insights and Challenges
Once the domain of early adopters, wearables are poised to help healthcare professionals collect a wealth of data from a widening and more diverse pool of users. This will come in the form of remote patient monitoring, in which specialized devices track metrics such as blood pressure and glucose levels, and also via fitness trackers and devices such as the Apple Watch that can identify signs of atrial fibrillation, among other things.
As a research tool, the technology is gaining ground. In September, Apple announced three cutting-edge studies — on women’s health, heart health and noise exposure — in conjunction with leading medical institutions. More than 400,000 Apple Watch users have agreed to participate.
Still, the movement presents big interoperability and interpretation challenges for providers.
“As a clinician, I don’t have time to deal with a flood of data — where’s my team filtering through this and escalating the important stuff to me?” Matthews says. “And do I expose myself to more medical liability because I’m receiving information about my patient’s condition but not acting upon it, because I’m busy doing whatever I have to do as opposed to monitoring data feeds?”
READ MORE: Learn how Ochsner uses the Apple Watch to keep patients healthy.
2. Artificial Intelligence Will Enhance Diagnosis, Process and Security
Increasingly, AI is becoming a pivotal part of healthcare. As healthcare threats increase in number and severity, AI can be employed to recognize unusual behaviors on a network, watch for fraud threats and predict malware infections based on previously identified characteristics, among other security measures.
The technology is also helping patients take better control of their own care, with tools that include chatbots for quick help with minor ailments, and wearable devices such as smart shirts that can record health data and produce predictive capacities. It also can be used to develop algorithms that help oncologists offer deep insights on biopsy reads.
Many of these applications remain segmented, however, which presents a barrier to fully comprehensive care. “Right now, artificial intelligence is mostly individual companies with one variable and one AI algorithm solving one problem,” Matthews says.
Which is why he expects to see alliances develop between tech companies and healthcare organizations, as well as tools that perform double duty: “What I believe we will see in the next year or two is algorithms that interpret multiple data sources at the same time from different variables. Once you’ve got that, the sky is the limit.”
3. Telehealth Will Widen Its Reach and Scope of Services
More doctors, health systems and medical specialties are providing telehealth services. As insurers move to offer reimbursements for telehealth — and the scope of telehealth coverage for Medicare Advantage enrollees expands — the benefits will continue to be more evident. A senior citizen recovering in post-acute care, for example, could receive an on-camera consultation without the physical and financial toll of travel.
Regardless of a user’s age or condition, familiarity with the concept will prompt wider adoption.
“I think FaceTime and Google Chat have really opened people’s willingness to do remote things; you’re comfortable talking with your grandmother over Skype, so you also understand this is a normal type of communication you can have with the clinician,” Matthews says, noting that not all Americans have high-speed internet coverage or personal technology to support it.
Such exchanges will increasingly go beyond a patient’s typical providers to encompass a wide range of care needs, he adds. That’s crucial for people in rural or underserved areas who require the care of a specialist: “You are calling for higher acuity cases or situations, and you are willing to entrust somebody who is far away to make the right diagnosis for you.”
4. Virtual Reality Will Play a Greater Role in Patient Care
The technology that some may assume to be purely for gamers is finding a role in healthcare. Senior living residences are implementing VR to help memory care patients “visit” favorite vacation spots, access street views of their childhood homes and enjoy comforting scenes of animals and nature. Those experiences can spark group discussions and boost socialization.
Vivid imagery provided via headsets is also being used in hospitals as a mode of distraction — and, when necessary, a way to avoid or lessen the use of pain medication — for patients undergoing treatments or who are experiencing discomfort. VR can also be used to educate; for instance, by offering “fly-through tours” of a tumor to explain treatment to a patient.
VR also helps surgeons visualize potential obstacles before complex surgeries — a use that Matthews considers pivotal to advancing care. “I think there’s a lot of promise for clinicians using virtual reality to improve procedural intervention or procedure by overlaying imaging data and relevant information,” he says.
VR can also provide audiences with a new perspective on illness. VR headsets with special software, for example, can help wearers experience what life is like for people with Alzheimer’s. In this case, the tool both educates and builds empathy.
MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: Read about the transformative power of smart home technologies.
5. 5G Will Provide Faster Network Speeds, but Many Questions Remain
The arrival of 5G has the potential to transform healthcare delivery by boosting speed and capacity while reducing latency. This powerful network will be crucial for transmitting large medical images, and for supporting telehealth initiatives and remote patient monitoring tools as well as complex uses of AI, AR and VR.
5G also will facilitate faster downloads and communication on mobile devices and tablets used in healthcare settings, and it’s likely to be a fitting complement to Wi-Fi 6.
Still, 5G is only available in a handful of markets. Despite higher capacity, 5G has been criticized for its shorter range and the resulting need for hundreds of thousands of new antennas — prompting concerns about potential health effects. There’s also plenty of consumer confusion around what constitutes 5G coverage and which devices can support it.
Matthews thinks the potential hasn’t yet been realized. “The hospital is a confined environment; you can entirely connect wirelessly using regular Wi-Fi signals,” he says. “You don’t need to do it with cellular network frequencies. If I am going to send images to a clinician’s cellphone, that’s great — but unless he has a high-resolution screen in his pocket, I don’t understand the purpose.”