Chronic diseases represent one of the biggest healthcare challenges to the European Union (EU), accounting for 86% of deaths. The digital age has and continues to transform the healthcare sector, bringing with it new ways of tackling old problems, many of which relate to how treatment is provided outside of the hospital. This has also greatly expanded the range of career paths within the industry, with a new focus on computer science and its intersection with biology and biomedical engineering.
The internet of things
“Chronic diseases represent one of the biggest healthcare challenges to the European Union (EU), accounting for 86% of deaths.“
An estimated one third of EU citizens over the age of 18 are living with a chronic illness. As such, it is critical that researchers and healthcare workers collaborate to employ and develop technologies to improve treatment and quality of life for those affected. Traditionally a fitness product, wearable smart devices utilising biometric sensors are beginning to see use in the healthcare world. Real time biometric readings like heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and even respiratory rate. With the right algorithms, this data can provide invaluable insights into a patient’s health without the need for a doctor to monitor them directly. Instead, this information could be uploaded and analysed online for potential health issues.
For many living with chronic illness, loneliness and depression are serious issues affecting a patient's motivation and ability to manage their disease. Virtual assistants can be employed to remind patients about medication, ask about symptoms and provide advice on demand. However, diversity in the sample populations used to build the models powering our healthcare systems is critical to ensuring an equally effective service among all demographics. The cost of not doing so could lead to millions receiving poor or improper treatment, highlighting the importance of diversity in development processes. This is as true for public healthcare services as it is for tech companies entering the space. The user base of these products will be diverse and training sets must reflect this to ensure fair and effective treatment.
A number of startups have already received funding for purpose-built virtual assistants aiming to support dozens of chronic illnesses. The result is a system which improves patient experience and decreases strain on the healthcare system by avoiding needless hospitalisations relating to poor illness management or unseen complications. Indeed, virtual assistants offer an incredible opportunity for healthcare providers to provide daily feedback and assistance to patients at home.
The internet has made finding and receiving proper treatment easier than ever before. However, administration still represents a significant portion of healthcare costs. This cost has and continues to be reduced through digitisation and automation though there is still much room for improvement. During treatment, the IoT and biometrics can drastically reduce the potential for human error and streamline the healthcare process. Wristband barcodes and fingerprint locked patient logs can prevent mix ups and ensure that doctors have access to the correct logs whilst safeguarding their patient’s privacy.
At home, the coupling of virtual assistants, wearables and other IoT devices can provide healthcare workers with a hitherto unseen degree of insight into the wellbeing of their patients. Machine learning can be used on this data to detect patterns associated with many illnesses, in many cases identifying them before users are even aware of an issue. The result is that patients may be alerted to issues and contact a doctor far in advance of when they otherwise would have, improving outcomes and reducing treatment costs. For the millions of patients unable to leave their homes, virtual reality may offer some aid. While the technology was originally developed for gaming it has proven beneficial for those whose illnesses prevent them from venturing outdoors. A review of published research reported that 98% of papers investigating the efficacy of virtual reality as a therapeutic tool demonstrated a beneficial outcome for their patients.
Technology has evolved at a rapid pace over the last 10 years, bringing with it new opportunities for the healthcare sector. The incredible amount of data users of smart devices produce each day provides researchers with everything they need to transform the way assistance is given. Within the next decade we may see widespread adoption of early warning systems in our homes, capable of alerting us to health conditions weeks in advance of them being noticeable. This would significantly improve both patient outcomes and the cost of treatment, making healthcare a much more effective and affordable service for all.