Realize a brave new world of health technology

In 1816, René Laennec invented the stethoscope, the first tool a doctor could use to treat patients, opening the doors to a new era of medical diagnosis. And yet, it took three decades for the industry to adopt it on a large scale, because medical associations were reluctant to use a “gimmick” on patients.

Fast forward to the present day, and the first digital stethoscope is now matter of fact, not fiction, with AI-powered algorithms on the back of the device listening to the minute details of patient abnormalities and relaying those results to physicians. The doctor doesn’t even have to be near the patient – the digital stethoscope can be sent to areas with doctor shortages, where an app will guide the patient through its use and a doctor can listen in from continents.

This disruptive technology is faster, more efficient and half the price of previous analog stethoscopes. And chances are your doctor won’t use it. Why? Remember the three decades it took for the first stethoscope – actually a wooden tube – to be adopted. Now consider the speed of digital innovation unfolding before our eyes; the myriad of new technologies becoming available every day, in addition to the exponential increase in the number of research and medical studies available, and the absence of a real curriculum that helps medical professionals to improve and integrate them into their daily practices.

Over the past year, we have witnessed the greatest accelerator of digital disruption and adoption the healthcare industry has ever seen. A seismic shift has taken hold in the wake of the pandemic outbreak, in consumer attitudes towards digital healthcare adoption and in how the industry must respond. Like never before, it must keep pace with disruption.

Choice, concern and convenience: changing the dynamic

A new study from VMware of more than 6,000 European consumers found that almost half (44%) are now comfortable with replacing routine medical consultations with remote virtual appointments. And it’s not just the younger, generally ‘tech-savvy’ generations; 45-54 year olds were among the most excited about a new virtual world of healthcare, where their regular consultations are via technology rather than in person.

Take the UK as an example; before the virus, video appointments accounted for just 1% of the 340 million annual visits to primary care doctors and nurses in Britain’s National Health Service. But as the outbreak gathered pace, we’ve seen physical A&E visits to all unit types drop 57% (vs. the previous year) while online doctor platforms like Push Doctor have saw a 70% weekly increase in consultations.

The pandemic has removed the choice of having routine face-to-face consultations, forcing many people to overcome longstanding concerns about the safety and security of virtual meetings with healthcare professionals. As this convenience begins to outweigh concerns in some healthcare scenarios, consumers are realizing the broader opportunities that new digital services can bring.

We are now much more courageous and confident in emerging digital health technologies like AI; today, 40% of consumers would trust a computer capable of detecting and recognizing abnormalities, such as cancerous cells, rather than a human doctor. And distrust of the use of data in healthcare – previously a huge hurdle to overcome – is fading; 60% are now comfortable with doctors having fully accurate data about their daily lives, while 45% of Europeans are comfortable or excited about a more qualified doctor performing invasive surgery via robotics at distance than a less qualified physician operating in person.

Life after the big digital shift: the appetite for innovation

While the pandemic has been the great digital shift and a major catalyst for change, what is now fueling the growing consumer enthusiasm for digital healthcare? I believe that a domino effect adoption of new technologies is eroding doubt, fear and skepticism about the role of “digital” in protecting ourselves, our friends and our families.

Consider the move we’ve already made beyond using a quick Google search to “diagnose” broad symptoms, as evidenced by the explosion of online services such as Doctorlink, the digital doctor compatible with the Internet. ‘AI that can suggest treatment plans, or apps like Ada, built by a neuroscientist and doctor, who has performed 20 million symptom assessments.

This is before the potential to properly harness cutting-edge applications such as augmented and virtual reality and AI. The results and the diversity of use cases here are breathtaking. From quickly analyzing certain disease patterns to identifying the risk of respiratory diseases via an algorithm that simply runs on X-ray images of patients’ chests; AI can help us make decisions faster and better, by combining endless different sources of data that we as humans cannot.

Realizing the future of healthcare

The message from consumers is that they want more of these innovations. Two-thirds now identify as ‘digital curious’ or ‘digital explorers’, an audience ready and receptive to new digital services. 58% of consumers, for example, are comfortable or excited that family members with chronic/long-term illnesses can 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, nearly half believe the technology will significantly reduce the risk of invasive surgery over the next five years, as 51% believe it can significantly improve the quality of life of vulnerable people, such as the elderly. or disabled.

It is this consumer belief in digital health services that poses the challenge to both industry and government. As with the introduction of the stethoscope, sometimes the first steps are the hardest, but the big digital shift of 2020 has kickstarted this wave of excitement, where consumers clearly feel less wary of technology in their patient care.

Moreover, given the intense and growing pressures on healthcare workers and the systems themselves, I am confident that we will see an even greater digital appetite from a larger portion of the population to find a future-proof system that works for everyone. A brave new virtual world of health technology awaits us, we just need to realize it.

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