Healthcare was the most disrupted sector in 2020. And if we try to find a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic, it would be that it helped revisit healthcare. Digital health came to the forefront. Data, IoT, artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, virtual and augmented reality, and many other technologies fueled the healthcare system.
Not just to serve care, technology also streamlined many cumbersome processes in healthcare. Senior health experts envision digital health to create new opportunities and make the healthcare industry evolve exponentially. With that thought in mind, let’s briefly look into the digital health trends and predictions for 2021. ‘
The Rise Of Smart Hospitals
Humans today demand smart things. Smartphones, smart cars, smart homes and even smart cities. The Internet of things has connected society and made things smarter. And this expectation of all-things-smart has seeped into the healthcare industry.
Patients no longer appreciate the conventional hospital experience. They want a smart hospital experience offered by the infusion of healthcare with IoT.
What Are Smart Hospitals?
Healthcare IT News defines smart hospitals as “those that optimize, redesign or build new clinical processes, management systems and potentially even infrastructure. They are enabled by underlying digitized networking infrastructure of interconnected assets, to provide a valuable service or insight which was not possible or available earlier, to achieve better patient care, experience, and operational efficiency.”
A smart hospital doesn’t stop at being digital; it goes a step beyond that to generating value through data and insights. The infrastructure foundation of smart hospitals stands on three pillars—data, insights and access. This means that smart hospitals would have digital systems feeding data constantly into data science, machine learning or data analytics software to derive insights. These insights should then be accessible via a smart device to all—physicians, practitioners, nurses, the IT department, and other stakeholders.
In 2021, smart hospitals will be on the rise. Be it for patient experience, operational efficiency or virtual monitoring, IoT is entering hospitals and making the infrastructure smarter for players.
Digital Front Door To Improve Experience
The pandemic ushered in the era of digital healthcare. Video consultations became the new normal. Patients resorted to online booking even when making an in-clinic appointment. A digital front door became imperative for all healthcare services, whether for making appointments, consultation or check-ups.
The digital experience is not going away. With patients or their guardians interacting with the digital front doors first before any interaction with the doctor, healthcare institutions need to enhance and optimize their patients’ digital experience. These digital portals act as the first impression for any healthcare institute, and it is imperative that they make a positive one.
2021 will be the year when healthcare institutions start focusing on improving their digital presence and offering a better patient experience. They will take a step beyond building their website, mobile app, or any other patient portal for care. They will also improve the overall digital experience to ensure it is seamless and glitch-free.
Automation To Reduce Clinical Burden
The COVID-19 pandemic limited the staff available for other operations in hospitals. The majority of staff was reserved for COVID cases. Hence, there needed to be a solution that could take care of clinical work. This forced them to experiment with technology and artificial intelligence led automation proved like a boon. It is no wonder that the AI-powered healthcare tools market is expected to reach $34 billion by 2025.
Natural language processing is a branch of artificial intelligence that allows systems to read and answer the questions by patients intuitively. This frees doctors from clinical work and adds efficiency to the process. Natural language processing automates the interaction between the patient and the healthcare system. This technology is capable of understanding human speech remarks and offering an expert response.
Even AI-powered chatbots could be seen handling many of the patient queries to reduce the load on the physicians. Other technologies like machine learning and data science, can fuel predictive analysis to figure out an issue before being forwarded to a physician.
Medical automation will be on the rise this year. We can expect increased use of healthcare chatbots, with its global market expected to hit $703 million by 2025. Home-based sensors will help virtual doctors (chatbots) make a preliminary diagnosis and determine the health concern. If the virtual doctor (powered by AI) finds a health concern that requires a professional human doctor’s help, the automated system can schedule appointments with the doctor, who will have all the data provided by the system.
VR To Emerge As a Powerful Healthcare Tool
2021 will be all about technology empowering the healthcare system. As clinics close, a new virtual way of getting doctors’ appointments has come to the fore. Previously, I talked about virtual doctors assessing patients with in-home sensors. This would be made possible using virtual reality. There are many new and exciting ways in which virtual reality would offer care or simplify healthcare. Some of the common use cases of VR that make it so powerful healthcare tool are the following.
- Pain Management. A full immersion for physical therapy patients of skin grafting has proven to provide pain relief, as per a study by the University of Washington Seattle and the UW Harborview Burn Centre. VR can also make recovery more fun by creating virtual environments for daily exercises.
- Mental Health. The healing capabilities of virtual reality are realized when applied to psychological issues. This technology can transport the patient to situations impossible to create or visit. Be it anxiety, phobia, stress or any other kind of mental health issue, VR can create real-like situations or scenarios with simulation grading to help patients cope.
- Medical Training. Harvard Business Review published a study stating that surgeons and medical practitioners who were trained with VR had a 230% increase in their performance. In fact, VR training can also boost the accuracy and speed of performing the surgery as per the same study.
- Virtual Reality Simulations. Be it age-related simulations or any other type, VR has helped in understanding any situation or medical condition better. It can even be helpful in planning and training for complicated surgeries.
- Medical Conferences. There are a number of events conducted virtually and medical conferences are among them. But considering the tediousness of hosting such conferences in physical environments, this trend would continue to grow strong in 2021. These conferences can be more interactive using gamification, 3-D visualization and other techniques.
EHR Interoperability to Break Information Silos
Electronic health records (EHRs) reached a new height in advancement. Even the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology and HHS issued new guidelines for interoperability considering the pandemic. These are aimed at regulating and preventing any information blocking practices performed by the healthcare workers. These could be the healthcare providers, health information exchanges, health IT developers, or the health information network.
In 2021 as well, electronic health records will become standardized and interoperable with the help of new technologies like the cloud. It will also enable information sharing or interoperability between patients, providers, and health tech developers via apps. This will shift more healthcare systems and hospitals to the cloud for hosting EHRs and making data accessible. It will also make it easier to get real-time insights while providing a much larger storage space.
Evolution of Internet Of Medical Things (IoMT)
I talked about smart hospitals made smart through the Internet of things, and here I will talk about the next and more evolved state of IoT in healthcare, IoMT. During the pandemic, several states used IoT to track and help prevent the disease from spreading. These efforts are not slowing down any time soon.
What Is IoMT?
IoMT is basically a subcategory of the Internet of Things. It is specifically targeted at telehealth and medicine. This technology allows medical devices in hospitals, at home, and even wearable devices to collect, analyze and share data in real-time.
It enables patient monitoring using IoT-enabled CT scanners, MRI machines, etc., from remote locations by getting real-time data from the equipment. Even at home, remote patient monitoring (RPM) and virtual home assistants (VHA) enable healthcare providers to take care of patients without being physically present.
What could make IoMT popular in 2021 is the fact that it makes health-related data much more accessible. Doctors can have real-time insights into the patients’ health, offering care from any part of the world.
Technology players and health software developers will invest in this evolving technology to provide IoMT solutions. New devices, wearable gears, monitoring apps and other machines will connect patients with caregivers to make healthcare smarter.
Cybersecurity Top of Mind
With the majority of healthcare transactions done digitally, there is a high risk to data security. In 2020, there were several cases of phishing attacks, ransomware attacks, online thefts, etc. that made cybersecurity a major concern. In October last year, hackers attacked six U.S. hospitals with ransomware in just 24 hours. As a preventive measure, many hospitals completely cut off external emails.
The need for increased cybersecurity is crucial in 2021 to safeguard hospital records and data. As the healthcare sector inclines towards digitalization, the risk of a ransomware attack, phishing attack, and other online threats increase. As a result, 2021 will also revolve around businesses investing in secure data storage and good cyber hygiene.
Complex and Chronic Disease Care Move Outside Four Walls
While much of the population has resorted to digital solutions for managing their health issues, there has been an apprehension around complex and chronic disease treatment outside the four walls of the hospital. Digital health will be integrated into the new world where at-home diagnostics and care are on top—not only for simpler issues like cough, cold, fever, etc., but also for the treatment of complex and chronic diseases.
This year healthcare will continue to evolve and become more digitalized; many doctors will diagnose and treat patients remotely. Technology will seep into all facets of healthcare, and we can expect to see doctors prescribe digital technology as a component of treatment for patients.
While these are just some of the trends that we expect to see in 2021, the year will also be about collaborating with innovators to improve digital health and take it to the next level.