Bring yourself to heal in 2019 using AI and tele-medicine
New technologies are empowering healthcare systems and consumers at an unprecedented rate
With billions of people connected to the internet, digital connectivity is central to solving healthcare problems. Amazon, Apple, Alphabet/Google and IBM are partnering with big names in healthcare to put patients at the centre of personalised, high-quality healthcare.
Jonathan Broomberg, CEO of Discovery Health, identifies three powerful technology trends for 2019.
Telemedicine’s titanic potential
Telemedicine, telehealth, or mHealth (mobile health) – remote patient diagnosis and treatment by means of telecommunications technologies – is key to treating patients with reduced access to primary healthcare.
Telemedicine has enabled interaction between consumers and healthcare experts, bringing measurable cost efficiencies. For instance the free-to-use Vula app, founded in SA in 2014, is now the official referral system for the Western Cape department of health. It is also being used in five other provinces (80% in the public sector, 20% in the private sector).
About 5,550 healthcare workers in rural areas use Vula to connect with specialists who are often located hours away. In under 15 minutes they receive advice about whether to treat a patient locally or refer on.
Vula facilitates interaction across 17 medical disciplines, helping over 300 patients a day. There’s an average reduction of 31% in physical referrals, saving both time and costs for patients and the healthcare system.
Teladoc, the leading telemedicine provider in the US with a 70% share of the market, has shown a doubling in telemedicine uptake between 2013 and 2017 year on year.
Though they calculate their market penetration at only 1%, virtual consultations realised a saving of around $300m to the US healthcare system in 2017 alone. This means a total potential saving of $30bn. Global telehealth adoption is driven by people living longer and by the global explosion in costly, chronic diseases of lifestyle.
In both contexts, telehealth fundamentally reduces barriers to communication between patients and healthcare providers to work at preventing disease, or existing conditions, from worsening. It’s estimated that virtual consultations may comprise 80% of patients’ first medical contact in both Israel and parts of the US.
Telemedicine’s applications abound. Discovery Health’s DrConnect app allows users to access vetted medical information through a worldwide network of over 105,000 doctors, or search a library of over five billion doctor-created answers to common medical questions.
As users pose personal medical questions, the app’s AI system narrows down possible diagnoses, with advice on whether to consult a doctor, and how urgently.
Cutting-edge drugs define a new world of healthcare
Targeted drugs therapies have revolutionised the way we treat common illnesses. The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to immunologists James Allison and Tasuku Honjo, who discovered ways to stimulate the inherent ability of the immune system to attack tumour cells. This sort of research has, since 2011, fuelled the development of various so-called immunotherapy drugs, revolutionising and personalising the care of previously untreatable cancers.
During 2019, billions will continue to be invested in the development of new compounds that could form the basis of similarly life-extending or lifesaving drugs. Yet the challenge is to provide access to these medications universally, as their high development costs mean they come to market at a premium.
In 2016, 89 Discovery Health Medical Scheme (DHMS) members requiring these high-cost medicines each claimed an average of R1.4 million. Compared to the R608m spent on such drugs in 2010, the DHMS paid out R1.5bn in 2017 – almost a tripling in costs. The number of DHMS members claiming towards these medications has increased seven-fold since 2008 – and this trend will continue into 2019.
Big data analytics and machine learning enable greater personalisation of care for all Our increasing ability to accurately analyse new kinds of health data means 2019 will propel us further from a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment and deeper into personalised medicine.
This is due to machine learning, a facet of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which allows for analysis of enormous data sets from thousands of people, yielding insight applicable to predicting health risks in a single individual.
Machine learning is also what enables the latest Apple Watch Series 4 to detect an irregular heart rate and rhythm and send an electrocardiogram to a doctor so that high-risk patients can access timeous medical care. The watch also detects hard falls and alerts emergency services.
In a world in which older people are living longer, and in which heart disease is a leading global killer, this sort of technology literally saves lives.
Discovery Health will this year launch a machine learning-powered platform which, on admission to hospital, will predict a patient’s risk of complications, hospital-acquired infections, future re-admissions or mortality. A good early understanding of these risks allows for the right interventions and better outcomes.
2019 will see significant volumes of data emanate from the “Medical Internet of Things” – wearable fitness devices and other connected health monitors. These allow for remote patient-monitoring by sending out continuous biometric data to healthcare providers.