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Health and technology: where we are today and what’s in store for the future

medical healthcare doctor
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy)

Healthcare systems have come a long way from what was around and in use a decade ago, and both technology advances and increasing adoption have played a key part in the progression of health tech. Digital services, for example, that prevent, diagnose or treat illnesses, making it possible to improve the well-being of people, is such a fast-growing global market that is estimated to reach over £240 billion by the end of 2025, growing at 19.04 percent CAGR. The European digital health market is predicted to grow at a CAGR of 27.1 percent from 2020 to 2025 as a result of increasing demand for remote healthcare services for monitoring and consultancy of patients.

Digital health systems use information technology, and electronic communications tools, services and processes to facilitate better health in patients so, while we are on the cusp of even further advances, we should still remember the numerous applications of technology that we already have in healthcare. There are a large number of Internet of Things (IoT) enabled solutions that offer connectivity between objects (physical or virtual) such as sensors and communication systems, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and 0G low-power networks, which you are surrounded by without even being aware of them or realizing just how accessible they are.

The implementation of digital health systems in cities

Health issues in public spaces have been a major challenge in recent months during the coronavirus pandemic. Each country has taken necessary measures to ensure the safety of its citizens in cities where, sometimes, the population density is enormous, from mandatory masks and temperature monitoring to setting up hand sanitizing stations (using hydroalcoholic gel distribution devices).

But, as the world's population continues to grow, so too does the number of people living in cities. Since 2007 more than half of the world’s population (approximately 3.5 billion people) has been living in cities but that is projected to rise to 60 percent (or 5 billion) by 2030.

Recognizing that city living can have a negative impact on their health, with many urban-based populations suffering from poor health conditions due to traffic pollution, many urban residents are already using technology solutions to reduce the causes and related risks of major illnesses. But the UK government is also taking notice of the need for digital health systems. Take for example the UK Defibrillator Legislation 2019, which recognizes the need for the installation of automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) in public spaces, alongside training on how to use them.

There are around 7.4 million people in the UK who are all currently living with heart and circulatory disease. Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the most common type and it is also the most common cause of heart attack and the single biggest killer worldwide. In the UK there are more than 100,000 hospital admissions each year due to heart attacks, which is one every five minutes.

In order to respond as quickly as possible to a sudden cardiac arrest, the installation of automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) in public spaces is indispensable...as long as they are fully working. This means that the monitoring and maintenance of these defibrillators is critical and there are IoT solutions for just this purpose. Through being connected to the AEDs, the IoT solutions enable the sharing of information in real time on an individual AED’s state. By recognizing the generation of alerts caused by any malfunction, a team can then replace the non-operational defibrillator quickly.

The digitization of logistics in the health sector

Logistics issues in the healthcare sector can mean life or death. If medical devices or prescription drugs do not arrive on time, that can be very costly to the patients, providers and industry as a whole. Today, beyond simple inventory management, the digitization of supply chain monitoring represents a challenge for many healthcare institutions, but as Deloitte also noted, it can bring about a number of opportunities such as cost optimization and improved patient care and engagement.

In this context, the IoT has a role to play in tracking vaccines, masks or any Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) shipments to ensure that all products arrive on time and in optimal condition. In addition, there are also solutions that can monitor the condition of these products en route too, which can be decisive on whether or not human intervention is necessary.

The World Health Organization has established its own guidelines on how cold vaccine storage should be and the cold chain maintenance required to maintain the effectiveness of the controlled temperature chain. In this case, monitoring and recording temperatures is an extremely important issue.

A second example would be tracking masks on their journey to help ensure that they arrive safely, as mask theft has been on the rise worldwide in recent months due to the current health crisis. Where once masks would have been valued in pennies, they are now of far greater value due to the rise in demand for them.

The rise of e-health at home for our aging population

By 2050, 1 in 4 people living in Europe or North America will be over the age of 65, leading to an increasingly important Silver Economy - referring to the markets, activities and issues related to those in the population who are aged over 60.

In healthcare, a number of solutions are emerging to enable the elderly - but also other people suffering from pathologies often associated with old age - to live more comfortably while remaining in their own homes. In the United Kingdom, a Statista study revealed that approximately 1.6 million women aged 75 and older lived alone while 780,0000 men of the same age were living alone at home. There are nearly 12 million people aged 65 and above in the UK and, as the number of older people rises, many of them wish to remain in their own homes, so it is important to continue caring for them, even from a distance. To enable this, there are IoT telecare solutions designed to detect a risky situation such as a heavy fall, which automatically send a message with the wearer's GPS position to alert caregivers. This helps to reassure not only people who live alone in their own homes but also their friends and family.

These solutions can be all the more important in situations where an elderly person is isolated, such as during the Covid-19 lockdown. IoT solutions are at the heart of healthcare digitization, but they are also proving useful in other areas, including the manufacturing of medical products, throughout the supply chain and serving the patient after receipt.

IoT continues to reveal its importance in a world where medical device security and data protection are major issues that will define the future of healthcare.

Ajay Rane, VP of Global Ecosystem Development, Sigfox