The genetic risks people aren’t testing for, but should be
2020 brought the realities of a global-scale health event to the forefront of public consciousness. Beyond the daily assault of devastating headlines, people faced extraordinary circumstances in their personal lives that taxed their physical, mental and emotional wellness.
From sweeping job loss and insecurity, to the challenges of childcare and the elimination of work-life balance as businesses across the globe shifted to remote models, humanity endured an upending of life as we knew it.
Compounding these challenges was social isolation and a string of lockdowns that stripped people of stress relief and endorphin-boosting activities, such as an evening at the gym, dinner out with a partner, or happy hour with friends. Without these societal cushions, the stressors and hardships of daily life became even harder to bear, pushing people to the point that they could no longer ignore the impact of the virus on their well-being. We could no longer just “get by.”
As a result, we’ve ushered in a new age of health consciousness and control. Born out of necessity and at a time when so few aspects of life felt in-control, people across the globe have become laser-focused on taking health into their own hands.
This changing mindset – empowered by a surge in wearables and digital health technologies – is enabling people to keep themselves and their families healthy during these trying times and bolster their defenses against the next inevitable health threat.
Gaining Agency Over Our Complete Health Picture
According to analyst firm IDC, the global wearables market grew 35% year over year, with shipments of these devices spiking in the third quarter of 2020. Apple Watches flew off the virtual shelves, with the brand seeing a 20% surge in sales over 2019. Meanwhile, Fitbit has been undertaking the challenge of applying its heart rate and health tracking capabilities to predicting COVID-19 infections and, on the wellness front, meditation app Headspace is heading to Netflix to deliver to the masses the streaming equivalent of a pandemic puppy.
Now more than ever, people want to take back some of the control they have lost this year, and the increasingly sophisticated and diverse capabilities of modern wearables and apps are enabling them to do it.
This is by no means a new movement; rather, the pandemic has accelerated an inevitable shift toward proactive healthcare that has been brewing for years. Prior to the pandemic, we were in the throes of a genetic testing revolution, which gave people unprecedented visibility into their genetic history. This provided insight into inherited predispositions to certain diseases, such as cancers, heart diseases and other conditions.
While understanding inherited genetic variations that can lead to health concerns is important, we know the vulnerabilities we inherited from our parents are just one facet of an individual’s overall health picture. In fact, we acquire most genetic variations linked to disease – often at random – over the course of our lives.
These accumulated, or somatic, genetic changes can happen at any point in our lifetimes due to exposure to an environmental hazard, such as chemicals or ultra-violet radiation, or an error in our cells’ replication processes. Although they can occur at any time, these changes become more common as we age.
This makes it all the more imperative to conduct regular health screenings that go beyond examining inherited genetic variants to also encompass accumulated changes and blood biomarkers that could indicate an emerging health concern.
The Year of Patient-Controlled Health
As we enter 2021, we’re on the cusp of making this type of holistic health monitoring a reality from the comfort of our home. The pandemic has left an indelible mark on society in many ways, but in the process, we have accelerated health and technology innovations that are putting regular health assessments and actionable longitudinal data about health over time into the hands of the individual.
This democratization of health data – as enabled by heart rate trackers, sleep monitors, nutrition catalogers – and emerging solutions such as personal biobanking, which allow people to study and store their healthy biological materials for potential future therapeutic use, is paving the way to a new age in healthcare.
Gone are the days of passive health screenings at our annual doctor’s visit or in response to symptoms. The pandemic has catalyzed an age of proactive and routine health monitoring that is fully customized to the individual and their health priorities. Armed with these tools, people can now track their health through their own personal health portals and understand how a fitness regimen, diet change or stressful week at work is impacting their real-time health.
The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated widespread adoption of digital and virtual health tools, but the result is likely to cause a massive paradigm shift in healthcare with long-lasting ramifications. Health decisions will no longer be wholly dictated by a healthcare provider; rather, they will be made in consultation with physicians, leveraging insights and data pulled from a multitude of health technology tools at people’s fingertips.
As the adage goes, the night is darkest before the dawn. We have the power to come out of the pandemic stronger than ever in 2021 by empowering consumers to continue to take their health into their own hands and maximize their agency over their health futures through the power and democratization of data.
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.