Telehealth, big data and artificial intelligence have changed the way we experience healthcare, particularly this year. Their roles in the transformation of healthcare were discussed at the APACMed Virtual Forum 2020, which brought together MedTech industry experts, healthcare providers and physicians.
by Oh Sher Li
The incorporation of technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data and the like, into healthcare, has been discussed for many years and put into practice in some countries, but the presence of COVID-19 has intensified the world’s focus on digital transformation of healthcare. As nation-wide lockdowns and restrictions were enforced globally at the advent of the pandemic, physicians and healthcare providers faced the complicated challenge of providing healthcare services to vulnerable individuals who are most at risk from the dangers of COVID-19, but who also require regular medical care.
Healthcare providers and physicians have been forced to adapt quickly to the current climate and have made use of technology in several ways to achieve this. This has had the side effect of allowing rapid advancement and evolution of methods in healthcare, which will likely continue being adopted even in a post-COVID-19 world.
The APACMed Virtual Forum 2020, held on 24 September 2020, discussed several of these issues, and touched on the future of healthcare through discussions on several themes such as telehealth, remote patient monitoring, and integrated healthcare, as well as trending topics such as big data and AI. Organised by the Asia Pacific Medical Technology Association (APACMed), the forum’s theme this year was “Redefining Healthcare Agility”. In this article, we take you through some of the key highlights of the event, with a specific focus on the how technology is changing healthcare systems today and in the future.
One of the main themes of the discussion surrounding technology and healthcare is telehealth. Telehealth is an overarching term that includes telemedicine and remote patient monitoring, including the technology, activities and systems that allow remote clinical care to be provided. On the other hand, telemedicine refers to medical services through remote means such as using telecommunications technology and video conferencing, and remote patient monitoring refers to the reporting, collection, transmission and evaluation of information pertaining to patients’ health through wearable or mobile monitoring devices. In particular, remote patient monitoring has evolved greatly in the past few years and is set to become a major player in healthcare systems.
While remote patient monitoring is neither a new concept nor practice, its implementation has become especially essential in recent years. This has been facilitated by the increasing accessibility of personal monitoring devices to the general public, as well as collaborative efforts between companies and physicians, in contrast to the past, when remote patient monitoring required the efforts of patients and doctors to organise regular sessions for communication and updates.
Today, remote patient monitoring is used for a multitude of applications. Specialised equipment and personal monitoring devices can collect and transmit patients’ health data, such as blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate. Wireless and Bluetooth-enabled devices can also be used to send measurements taken by patients at home directly to physicians, such as blood glucose levels for diabetes management. Such applications are especially useful for monitoring chronic ailments including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. However, remote patient monitoring has gone beyond serving simply as a substitute for in-person consultations. It can be used to assess and diagnose conditions that cannot be easily observed in clinics and hospitals, such as sleep disorders.
Besides allowing physicians to keep track of patients’ health over time, remote patient monitoring also offers some other advantages. Firstly, the continuous collection and transmission of data may help healthcare providers to develop more personalised treatment plans, as it is now easier to keep track of disease history and triggers, allowing for instance the optimisation of insulin dosage for diabetic patients and the recognition of asthma triggers in order to intercept an attack. Furthermore, the data collected can help to predict trends and outcomes of treatment, such as forecasting whether patients are likely to discontinue treatment based on patterns of behaviour or health metrics.
Telehealth plays a vital role in the fight against COVID-19. Remote patient monitoring and telemedicine have become especially essential this year, for obvious reason, as they have been crucial in providing continued healthcare services to individuals even as physical visits to doctors became difficult. We often think of remote patient monitoring and telemedicine as long-distance methods of providing healthcare, but perhaps surprisingly, they have been helpful even within hospitals, particularly for the treatment of COVID-19. Equipment such as ventilators that connect to the cloud or to hospital systems and telecommunication technology allow doctors to monitor patients from a safe distance.
Beyond COVID-19, thanks to developments in telehealth, healthcare systems are set to improve around the world. Doctors are now able to discuss challenges of disease management with other doctors globally, and even consult with each other live during surgeries. Telehealth has also improved accessibility to healthcare in emerging markets and rural areas, since all that patients need to see a medical specialist is an Internet connection.
As telehealth continues to be increasingly integrated into everyday healthcare systems, it is inevitable that large amounts of data are generated from the collection of patients’ data. This is where big data and AI become apparent. We saw a glimpse earlier in this article of how big data and AI could help healthcare providers and physicians predict events from patterns and develop personalised treatments, but their applications go far beyond these.
Besides the large amount of data collected, increasing connectivity has made healthcare more collaborative than ever before. This, coupled with advancements in AI, has the potential to improve the way diagnoses are made, thereby raising healthcare standards. For instance, a panel of medical experts could make diagnoses for a training set of data, which is then used to develop models that can effectively diagnose similar conditions. This eliminates factors that could affect the way humans diagnose conditions, and when tested, such an approach performed better than individual doctors. The collection of data and collaboration between experts could lead to the development of more of such models that could ultimately change the way we experience diagnosis and treatment.
As with every technological revolution, there are downsides and areas of caution. The collection and transmission of large amounts of personal health data means that corporations and healthcare providers need to be increasingly mindful of data protection measures, to prevent breaches that could be harmful to individuals. In addition, data management processes need to be put in place quickly, so that the data collected can be used effectively and meaningfully. These issues raise the question of who is responsible for this data – with such large amounts of sensitive information being generated and transmitted each day around the world, robust pipelines need to be established to ensure that malicious parties do not get their hands on the data, and that physicians who need to receive vital information are not overwhelmed.
The focus on technology in healthcare is especially clear this year, given the impact of COVID-19 on the healthcare delivery system. This has fast-tracked several trends, including the adoption of telehealth in various countries, and sparked discussions on the future of healthcare. The combined efforts by MedTech industries, healthcare providers and governments have softened the blow caused by COVID-19 and will likely lead to long-term improvements in healthcare practices.
- Board on Health Care Services; Institute of Medicine. The Role of Telehealth in an Evolving Health Care Environment: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2012 Nov 20. 3, The Evolution of Telehealth: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going? Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207141/