Digital Healthcare Explained: How Technology is Changing the Medical Landscape, Part 2

Digital Healthcare Impact

In Part 1 of the series, we discussed the definition of digital healthcare and how technology powers a fully-functional medical ecosystem. Now, find out more about the impact and challenges of digital healthcare, and what it means for the future of healthcare.

Digital Healthcare Market Size

The gradual shift towards improved patient outcomes, value-based care, and cost containment are expected to drive the worldwide digital healthcare market from approximately $147 billion in 2019 to $234.5 billion in 2023.

But these reports normally focus primarily on the technology employed by the healthcare industry, like electronic health records, digital prescribing, and telemedicine. To get a clearer picture of the overall digital healthcare market, consumer digital health reports must be taken into consideration, including the industry’s constituent parts.

A report into mobile health by Research and Markets, for example, predicts a market of $189 billion by 2025. This is driven by the healthcare sector’s interest in reducing costs by prioritizing patient-centric healthcare. On the other hand, according to CCS Insight, the wearables industry will fall to $27 billion in 2022 because consumers express no interest in tracking their health.

An expanding market, however, increases the need for cybersecurity. Regulators in the US and other nations are imposing heavy penalties and fines on healthcare providers that fail to protect patient data from data security and patient privacy threats. Digital therapeutics and femtech will also increase in size as opportunities in mass-market and medical-grade solutions and products offer new ways for health management.

Importance of Digital Healthcare

The digital healthcare industry has multiple goals, including:

  • Prevention of disease
  • Patient monitoring
  • Chronic disease management
  • Reduction in healthcare provision costs
  • Medicines tailored to individual needs

The interesting thing about digital healthcare is, these aims potentially stand to benefit both healthcare providers and patients. Collecting data on health markers, from blood pressure to activity levels, digital healthcare allows patients to improve and maintain good health.

Digital healthcare can help physicians identify illnesses remotely or monitor the worsening of existing conditions. By giving doctors the opportunity to step in earlier during the course of a disease, digital health tools reduce its length and ease symptoms. Thus, digital health improves quality of life and minimizes the total cost of an individual’s healthcare over their lifetime, reducing costs for patients and providers.

According to Dell, healthcare organizations have witnessed an explosive growth in health data, reaching an average of 8.41 petabytes in 2018. With apps and peripherals gathering increasing volumes of medical data, businesses are extracting value from it. And it makes sense because health is a huge industry and recession-proof. The increasing demand means healthcare providers are seeking new ways to reduce costs. One way to do so involves moving away from treating diseases and actively preventing them, which is the goal of digital healthcare. By monitoring the patient’s health, digital tools potentially allow individuals to get a better handle on their condition.

Regulations on Digital Healthcare

Regulatory agencies worldwide find it difficult to stay abreast of the latest developments in the medical sector. In the time it takes to establish a framework governing the development and deployment of health tools and services, the industry moves onto more sophisticated digital healthcare solutions.

According to the The Foundation for Genomics and Population Health (PHG), an independent, nonprofit health policy think tank associated with the University of Cambridge, three major challenges exist as far as the regulation of digital health across the UK and US is concerned:

  • The first challenge is the inclusion of digital healthcare under the medical device umbrella. Both algorithm-based digital health tools and medical equipment are increasing, but they require separate regulatory tests and analyses. For this reason, regulatory bodies must equip staff with the necessary expertise to evaluate advanced technologies like big data. On the other hand, developers should have knowledge of new or changing regulations.
  • The second challenge involves the blurring of lines between medical devices and those that simply manage overall well-being and lifestyle factors. As consumer-facing digital health solutions increase, more explicit definitions are necessary. For example, “What qualifies as a medical device must be sufficiently flexible for regulators to regulate risky devices but also rigid enough for manufacturers to be given some degree of certainty over whether their device will qualify as a medical device or not.”
  • Machine learning - a key component of digital healthcare - has its own set of regulatory problems. While some AI tools operate in a clear, easily understandable manner, others are complex “black boxes” without any interpretation. Together with self-updating AI algorithms, they present safety risks that are not covered by regulatory frameworks but potentially fall within the purview of existing healthcare device regulations. Thus, caution is necessary when dealing with machine learning. After all, it is difficult and time-consuming to regulate the whole field based on a niche subset of ML tools.

That being said, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made great strides towards speeding up the process of certifying digital healthcare products. The agency kick-started its Digital Health Action Plan in 2017, introducing new guidelines to implement legislation on digital healthcare and clarify which products and tools fell under its jurisdiction.

A pre-certification program for developers - Health Software Precertification (Pre-Cert) Program - also made its debut. It is aimed at low-risk health products manufactured by companies that “demonstrate a culture of quality and organizational excellence based on objective criteria.” Some of the notable participants in the pilot program include Apple, Fitbit, Johnson & Johnson, Roche, and Samsung.

In Europe, more legislation awaits the digital healthcare industry. Medical Devices Regulation (MDR) was due to become fully active in May 2020. But the European Commission will postpone the date for one year in light of the COVID-19 crisis. The bill will update the regulatory framework digital health tools are governed by, clarifying and broadening the definition of medical devices, apps, and software, and increasing the traceability of mobile devices.

However, Philips’ Future Health Index 2019 survey revealed that China and other emerging markets like UAE and India lead globally in the use of digital healthcare technologies. More medical professionals in China recommend the use of technologies to self-track health indicators like blood pressure than their Western counterparts. By embracing self-monitoring, the country has become the largest wearables market. Saudi Arabia and India sport similar trends, supporting above-average growth.

Chinese, Indian and UAE citizens harbor a favorable view on digital healthcare. China, in particular, has welcomed telehealth to a greater extent, possibly because the low doctor density makes remote consultations the more attractive option. These forerunner countries are in a position to inspire others and help spread the benefits of digital healthcare, like the suggestion that patients sharing data receive better quality care. But new barriers to use have emerged from the adoption of digital technology in healthcare. In Asia, medical professionals may enjoy data access more assuredly than their European peers, but data privacy concerns are greater.

Digital Healthcare Concerns

Technology has permeated every aspect of consumers’ lives, including healthcare. As healthcare spending increases, now more than ever consumers must be empowered to manage their own health and well-being. 36 percent of consumers already rely on the Internet to research medical issues and products. The percentage jumps to 42 for users aged between 55 and 64 years due to greater focus on health.

But digital healthcare is far from perfect. One of the biggest downsides is the removal of face-to-face, personal interactions between doctors and patients. Research suggests consumers’ first preference for communicating with their physicians is still in-person. This drives home the point that although digital healthcare will be indispensable in future, the human touch is not replaceable.

Also, digital healthcare will be useful across the board only if it caters to the widest possible range of patients, irrespective of factors like:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Income group
  • Medication condition (with or without)

Right now, digital healthcare devices, especially wearables, are popular among individuals who skew fitter, wealthier, and younger. With digital health manufacturers increasingly targeting older demographics, this will possibly change over time but right now, the data available from digital health products focus on a small section of the population.

Digital healthcare solutions will become increasingly medicalized and prone to slip-ups in future. Patients may be ‘diagnosed’ with a condition by a faulty system, they may undergo unnecessary doctors’ appointments and health tests, be told they are fine by a fitness band or smartwatch, or fail to visit a doctor in an emergency.

Questions arise concerning the involvement of insurance companies in digital healthcare. Many businesses promote healthy habits in customers by offering discounts or free wearables if they achieve specific exercise targets. However, the data from these devices may soon affect eligibility and pricing, potentially requiring users to share more data than they are comfortable with.

Future Prospects of Digital Healthcare

Digital healthcare promotes an environment where patients with chronic conditions can get better and monitor their health outcomes. Tools are already available for practicing lifestyle medicine; add some peripherals to the mix and medical management becomes simpler, more convenient too.

Hypertension patients, for example, use readily available blood pressure cuffs to detect changes in blood pressure and identify successful medications and lifestyle changes that help bring the condition under control. Diabetics turn to connected glucose monitors for managing their diet and gauging the effectiveness of medication. In this manner, digital healthcare tools and apps handle chronic issues by minimizing provider costs and reducing the number of emergency visits, doctor appointments, and hospital admissions for patients.

Digital healthcare walks a tightrope between what is typically perceived as ‘consumer’ and ‘medical-grade’ technology. The latest Apple Watch models contain ECG functions that enable consumers to identify undiagnosed heart conditions earlier. This is not just helpful to the wearer but also makes the job easier for medical professionals.

Medical systems have witnessed an uptick in digital functionality of late. Due to the blurring of lines between consumer and medical-grade healthcare hardware and digital applications, more businesses are attempting to enter the market. The more widespread the use of health apps and digital tools, the quicker we can develop a large data repository on global user health markers

In time, digital healthcare will combine big data, cloud and AI functionalities to connect the dots between medical conditions and individual lifestyles, and figure out how something increases or decreases the possibility of certain medical conditions. While some privacy concerns exist concerning the use of personal medical information, the digital healthcare sector can go a long way in helping professionals improve public health.

Healthcare organizations interested in a competitive advantage must tap into growth opportunities by:

  • Promoting the presence of experienced IT staff to manage a combination of cloud-based and internal services, platforms, and infrastructure
  • Allocating considerable resources to cybersecurity
  • Providing various devices, services, platforms, and data management solutions, including medical-grade and mass-market wearables
  • Developing a network of healthcare businesses that contribute to a superior value proposition for every stakeholder
  • Cleansing and curating data to optimally leverage big data analytics triggered by the expected growth in patient-generated health data from remote patient monitoring

The good news is, the growing senior population in countries like US, China, India, Japan, and UAE has led to a massive demand for digital healthcare options, including AI, chatbots, mobile healthcare, and telemedicine. Together with shortages in qualified medical professionals and physicians, industry participants are actively embracing digitalization as the next stage in patient access, workflow management, clinical decision support, and public health management.

Conclusion

According to Stanford researchers, organizations lacking tools to analyze data will merely collect and store it, instead of interpreting the data to improve patient outcomes or influence public health. In the process, they will lose out on empowered health-seekers interested in accessible healthcare, transparent costs, self-improvement through personal records, and chronic disease monitoring.

The past decade has witnessed a paradigm shift of sorts in the wake of digital healthcare. More empowered patients and doctors and health-conscious individuals are advocating the development of new models of care that respond to new demands from consumers and physicians.

Evolving consumer preferences and behavior prompts digital healthcare to adapt quickly to various non-regulated and regulated platforms and tools. The endgame is to provide efficient, personalized care that makes users feel mindful, safe, and satisfied. Moreover, the growing adoption and acceptance by the healthcare industry, regulators, physicians and patients showcases how digital health is here to remain and change the status quo.