Can wellness devices really improve health?
Written by Heather Fraser
The annual visit to a doctor’s office for a check-up has long been seen as the key to preventive medicine. Now, inventive entrepreneurs are starting to develop personal medical devices and gadgets that can monitor a person’s condition during the months between doctor visits. The devices can send alerts to doctors or other caregivers when things start to go wrong and allow for much timelier interventions.
These devices can improve patients’ lives, control their medical conditions and in some instances, possiblyavoid the high costs of emergency room visits. They can also add real-time data about patients’ vital signs to electronic health records.
So far, connected health devices have been aimed at two markets: fitness enthusiasts and chronically ill people who need constant monitoring. The enthusiasts pay for their own devices to track distances, pulse rates and activity levels, while insurers typically pay for monitors for chronically ill people because it is cheaper than sending nurses to their homes.
Recent research by IBM’s Institute for Business Value shows that there is a much bigger potential market between those extremes. An online survey of 1,300 people found that most were willing to pay up to US$100 plus a monthly fee for devices that could improve their health. Worldwide, billions of individuals could benefit from devices that help them reduce their weight, lower their cholesterol or monitor hypertension. Many of these people are highly motivated and want to know more about their condition and they want to take control of their health.
This particular group of peoplewill be willing to put down their own money if the devices are easy to use, and show promise of making a real difference. Connecting devices to smartphones can hold down device costs, but no matter what the device, they still need to be integrated into the healthcare system through connectivity to primary care physicians and healthcare records.
Among the most promising markets are motivational devices that could help people follow a diet, stay on an exercise program or quit smoking or drinking. Millions of people have downloaded calorie-counting apps for the iPhone and Android phones. Online support groups can also be connected to help people share information about diseases and encourage each other to eat more vegetables or stay away from drugs.
Insurers have been reluctant to pay for wellness programs without stronger research-based evidence about which ones work. And, especially in the US where individuals switch jobs and insurers frequently, the insurers fear that they will pay most of the up-front costs, but other payers will reap the benefits of future reduced expenses. However, health plans may soon begin to see this as a way to differentiate themselves to consumers and increase member loyalty. Some employers also pay for wellness programmes, including weight-loss and smoking cessation, because it makes their workers more productive.
Using technology to encourage wellness has lots of promise and it is exciting to see the ways that innovators are taking advantage of technological advances. Recently, IBM sponsored what we called a ‘SmartCamp’ for technology entrepreneurs. Healthcare emerged as an important theme, and three of the five finalists were healthcare-related companies and each had ideas that could transform patients’ lives if they work as planned.
Waldo Health makes a tablet-based home healthcare companion that can track vital signs like blood pressure, weight and glucose levels, remind patients to take their medication and allow for automatic video-conferencing with a doctor when help is needed. Meanwhile, DxUpClose makes a pocket-sized lab for health workers that can screen patients’ blood for bacterial infections and determine what antibiotic to prescribe within 60 minutes. Additionally, Tactical Information Systems is developing a product called Wander ID that uses biometrics like facial recognition to help rescuers identify lost and confused people who have wandered away from nursing homes or group care facilities.
The health care industry agrees that to improve public health and make costs manageable, individuals must take more responsibility for their own health. Many organisations are trying to devise ways to compensate doctors and hospitals for keeping patients healthy rather than for doing procedures.
Patients, insurers and government payers could all benefit from monitoring by connected medical devices and much of the data analysis could be done cheaply using sophisticated analytics in cloud computing centres. However, we need to figure out how to pay for it and when the system spots problems that require intervention, someone needs to pay doctors or other providers for the time they spend analysing data from the devices.
Technology can play a major role in the move to patient-centered health care and it is time to develop innovative solutions that can make it happen.
The Waldo Health home monitoring system:
Heather Fraser is Global Life Sciences Lead for the IBM Institute for Business Value. She is also a pharmacist with over 20 years of experience in the life sciences sector holding positions in the pharmaceutical industry, consultancy and retail pharmacy.
How UiPath robots are helping with the NHS backlog
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many hospitals to have logistical nightmares, as backlogs of surgeries built up as a result of cancellations. The BMJ has estimated it will take the UK's National Health Service (NHS) a year and a half to recover.
However software robots can help, by automating computer-based processes such as replenishing inventory, managing patient bookings, and digitising patient files. Mark O’Connor, Public Sector Director for Ireland at UiPath, tells us how they deployed robots at Mater Hospital in Dublin, saving clinicians valuable time.
When Did Mater Hospital implement the software robots - was it specifically to address the challenges of the pandemic?
The need for automation at Mater Hospital pre-existed the pandemic but it was the onset of COVID-19 that got the team to turn to the technology and start introducing software robots into the workflow of doctors and nurses.
The pandemic placed an increased administrative strain on the Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) department at Mater Hospital in Dublin. To combat the problem and ensure that nurses could spend more time with their patients and less time on admin, the IPC deployed its first software robots in March 2020.
The IPC at Mater plans to continue using robots to manage data around drug resistant microbes such as MRSA once the COVID-19 crisis subsides.
What tasks do they perform?
In the IPC at Mater Hospital, software robots have taken the task of reporting COVID-19 test results. Pre-automation, the process created during the 2003 SARS outbreak required a clinician to log into the laboratory system, extract a disease code and then manually enter the results into a data platform. This was hugely time consuming, taking up to three hours of a nurse’s day.
UiPath software robots are now responsible for this task. They process the data in a fraction of the time, distributing patient results in minutes and consequently freeing up to 18 hours of each IPC nurse’s time each week, and up to 936 hours over the course of a year. As a result, the healthcare professionals can spend more time caring for their patients and less time on repetitive tasks and admin work.
Is there any possibility of error with software robots, compared to humans?
By nature, humans are prone to make mistakes, especially when working under pressure, under strict deadlines and while handling a large volume of data while performing repetitive tasks.
Once taught the process, software robots, on the other hand, will follow the same steps every time without the risk of the inevitable human error. Simply speaking, robots can perform data-intensive tasks more quickly and accurately than humans can.
Which members of staff benefit the most, and what can they do with the time saved?
In the case of Mater Hospital, the IPC unit has adopted a robot for every nurse approach. This means that every nurse in the department has access to a robot to help reduce the burden of their admin work. Rather than spending time entering test results, they can focus on the work that requires their human ingenuity, empathy and skill – taking care of their patients.
In other sectors, the story is no different. Every job will have some repetitive nature to it. Whether that be a finance department processing thousands of invoices a day or simply having to send one daily email. If a task is repetitive and data-intensive, the chances are that a software robot can help. Just like with the nurses in the IPC, these employees can then focus on handling exceptions and on work that requires decision making or creativity - the work that people enjoy doing.
How can software robots most benefit healthcare providers both during a pandemic and beyond?
When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, software robots were deployed to lessen the administrative strain healthcare professionals were facing and give them more time to care for an increased number of patients. With hospitals around the world at capacity, every moment with a patient counted.
Now, the NHS and other healthcare providers face a huge backlog of routine surgeries and procedures following cancellations during the pandemic. In the UK alone, 5 million people are waiting for treatment and it’s estimated that this could cause 6,400 excess deaths by the end of next year if the problem isn’t rectified.
Many healthcare organisations have now acquired the skills needed to deploy automation, therefore it will be easier for them to build more robots to respond to the backlog going forwards. Software robots that had been processing registrations at COVID test sites, for example, could now be taught how to schedule procedures, process patient details or even manage procurement and recruitment to help streamline the processes associated with the backlog. The possibilities are vast.
The technology, however, should not be considered a short-term, tactical and reactive solution that can be deployed in times of crisis. Automation has the power to solve systematic problems that healthcare providers face year-round. Hospital managers should consider the wider challenge of dealing with endless repetitive work that saps the energy of professionals and turns attention away from patient care and discuss how investing in a long-term automation project could help alleviate these issues.
How widely adopted is this technology in healthcare at the moment?
Automation was being used in healthcare around the world before the pandemic, but the COVID-19 outbreak has certainly accelerated the trend.
Automation’s reach is wide. From the NHS Shared Business Service in the UK to the Cleveland Clinic in the US and healthcare organisations in the likes of Norway, India and Canada, we see a huge range of healthcare providers deploying automation technology.
Many healthcare providers, however, are still in the early stages of their journeys or are just discovering automation’s potential because of the pandemic. I expect to see the deployment of software robots in healthcare grow over the coming years as its benefits continue to be realised globally.
How do you see this technology evolving in the future?
If one thing is certain, it’s that the technology will continue to evolve and grow over time – and I believe there will come a point in time when all processes that can be automated, will be automated. This is known as the fully automated enterprise.
By joining all automation projects into one enterprise-wide effort, the healthcare industry can tap into the full benefits of the technology. This will involve software robots becoming increasingly intelligent in order to reach and improve more processes. Integrating the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning into automation, for example, will allow providers to reach non-rule-based processes too.
We are already seeing steps towards this being taken by NHS Shared Business Service, for example. The organisation, which provides non-clinical services to around two-thirds of all NHS provider trusts and every clinical commissioning organisation in the UK, is working to create an entire eco-system of robots. It believes that no automation should be looked at in isolation, but rather the technology should stretch across departments and functions. As such, inefficiencies in the care pathway can be significantly reduced, saving healthcare providers a substantial amount of time and money.