Realising a brave new world of healthcare technology
In 1816 Rene Laennec invented the stethoscope, the first tool a physician could use in treating patients, opening the doors to a new era of medical diagnostics. And yet, it took the industry three decades to widely adopt this, as Medical Associations shied away from using a ‘gadget’ on patients.
Fast forward to the present day, and the first digital stethoscope is now a matter of fact not fiction, with AI-powered algorithms in the back of the device listening to the minutia of patient anomalies and relaying these findings to doctors. The doctor need not even be near the patient – the digital stethoscope can be sent to areas experiencing doctor shortages, where an application will guide the patient through its use and a doctor can listen from continents away.
This disruptive technology is faster, more effective and half the price of analogue stethoscopes before it. And there’s every likelihood your doctor is not using it. Why? Remember the three decades it took for the first stethoscope – effectively a wooden tube – to be adopted. Now, consider the speed of digital innovation happening before our eyes; the myriad of new technologies becoming available every day, on top of the exponentially expanding amount of medical research and studies available, and the lack of any real curriculum helping healthcare professionals upskill and incorporate these into daily practices.
In the past year we have witnessed the single biggest accelerator of digital disruption and adoption the healthcare sector has ever known. A seismic transition has been forced into existence following the pandemic outbreak, in consumer attitudes towards embracing digital healthcare and in how the industry needs to respond. Like never before, it is having to keep up with the pace of disruption.
Choice, concern and convenience: changing the dynamic
New research from VMware of over 6,000 European consumers found that almost half (44%) are now comfortable with replacing routine medical consultations with remote, virtual appointments. And this isn’t just the younger, typically ‘tech-savvy’ generations; 45–54-year-olds were among the most enthusiastic for a new virtual world of healthcare, where their regular consultations are conducted via technology rather than in-person.
Take the UK as an example; before the virus, video appointments made up only 1 per cent of the 340 million annual visits to primary care doctors and nurses in Britain’s National Health Service. But as the outbreak accelerated, we saw physical A&E visits across all unit types drop by 57% (vs. the year before) while online doctor platforms like Push Doctor saw a 70% weekly increase in consultations.
The pandemic removed the choice of having face-to-face routine consultations, forcing many to overcome long held concerns over the safety and security of virtual meetings with medical professionals. As this convenience starts to trump concern in certain healthcare scenarios, consumers are waking up to the broader opportunities new digital services can bring.
We are now that much braver and confident in nascent digital healthcare technologies like AI; today, 40% of consumers would place their trust in a computer that can detect and recognise anomalies, for example cancerous cells, over a human doctor. And distrust of data use in healthcare – previously a huge hurdle to overcome – is subsiding; 60% are now comfortable with doctors having completely accurate data about their daily lives, while 45% of Europeans are comfortable or excited about a more qualified doctor conducting invasive surgery via remote robotics than a less qualified doctor operating in person.
Life after the big digital switch: the appetite for innovation
While the pandemic was the big digital switch and a major catalyst for change, what is now fuelling the growing consumer enthusiasm in digital healthcare? I believe a domino-effect style adoption of new technologies is eroding doubt, fear and scepticism of the role of ‘digital’ in protecting ourselves, friends and families.
Consider the move we’ve already made beyond using a quick Google search to ‘diagnose’ broad symptoms, evidenced by the explosion in online services such as Doctorlink, the AI-enabled digital doctor that can suggest treatment plans, or apps like Ada, built by a neuroscientist and a doctor, which has completed 20 million symptom assessments.
That’s before the potential to properly exploit state-of-the-art applications such as augmented and virtual reality and AI. The results and diversity of use cases here are breath-taking. From rapid analysis of certain disease patterns to pinpointing the risk of respiratory diseases via an algorithm that simply runs over x-ray images of patients’ chests; AI can help us make decisions faster and better, combining infinite different data sources we as human beings are not able to.
Realising the future of healthcare
The message from consumers is that they want more of these innovations. Two-thirds now identify themselves as ‘digitally curious’ or ‘digital explorers’ – a ready and receptive audience for new digital services. 58% of consumers, for example, are comfortable or excited that family members with a chronic/long-term illness could have the freedom to live further away from medical facilities, thanks to sensors and real-time data monitoring predicting when they will need medical assistance.
Additionally, almost half have faith in technology significantly lowering the risk of invasive surgery within the next five years, as 51% believe it can meaningfully improve the quality of lives of vulnerable people, such as the elderly or disabled.
It is this consumer belief in digital healthcare services that is laying down the challenge for both industry and government. As with the introduction of the stethoscope, the first steps are sometimes the hardest, but the big digital switch of 2020 has kickstarted this wave of enthusiasm, whereby consumers clearly feel less wary of technology in their patient care.
What’s more, given the intense and ever-growing pressures on healthcare workers and the systems themselves, I’m confident we’ll see an even greater digital appetite from more of the population to find a futureproof system that works for everybody. A brave new virtual world of healthcare tech awaits, we just need to realise it.