02. Experts Corner

The Rise of Digital Health

August 2, 2019

The defining influence on modern times has been the Digital Revolution. Also known as the Third Industrial Revolution, it has shifted economies around the world from being primarily mechanical, to dominantly electronic. Computers, smartphones and connectivity have redefined almost every aspect of the way we live our lives, just think how managing finances has changed from pen and paper to online banking.  As a result, practically every modern industry has been transformed by a wave of digitization. There is however one glaring exception. Healthcare. Here we will see why that is about to change.

What is Digital Health?

Digital health is the convergence of digital technologies with healthcare and healthy living, as well as a drive to enhance the efficiency of traditional treatments, making them more personalized and precise.  It can cover everything from wearable gadgets to embedded sensors, mobile health apps and AI or robotic care. Some key advantages include being able to efficiently collect health data at a personal level, to perform sophisticated assessments and evaluations. Though perhaps most important, is the opportunity for new forms of treatments, dubbed digital therapeutics.

For these reasons digital health tools have, for a long time, shown promise to help identify new illnesses, more effectively monitor existing health conditions, predict the onset of diseases, and improve treatment outcomes. And surprisingly all this could come at a significantly lower cost and with greater accessibility than traditional healthcare. Which leaves the big question - why isn’t it already here?

There have been two key reasons. Firstly, the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are huge, with an equally weighty cultural inertia. The adoption of digital healthcare will be transformational, bringing new players into the market - something not seen advantageous by major players in the industry. Secondly, the healthcare space lives under understandably scrutinous government regulations, which have not been equipped to deal with the new standards and infrastructure needed to incorporate the complex and diverse digital health sector.

That said, things are set to change dramatically. Here are 4 reasons why.

1. New Regulatory Standards

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) emits a global influence on healthcare standards. Recently it has been undergoing a major shift in its views on digital healthcare, with clear moves to embrace digital therapeutics. In the words of FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. “The new technological paradigm of digital health tools will allow consumers and providers to supersede the traditional, physical constraints of health care delivery.”

The FDA now recognizes that regulatory approval processes which were designed primarily for pharmaceutical medicine, need to be expanded and become more flexible for digital health. This has included their issuing of the Digital Health Action Plan to support software and app-based treatments, as well as allowing the use of real-world evidence mining for clinical development. The FDA has also backed the founding of the Digital Therapeutics Alliance, a large group of digital health industry leaders committed to broadening the understanding, adoption, and integration of clinically-validated digital therapeutics into healthcare.

In terms of healthcare entering the third industrial revolution, the FDA is now taking some big steps.

2. Consumer-Level Disruptive Technologies

The digital health market is now seeing the transformation of medical technologies in the consumer domain, into fully-fledged medical-grade digital health tech. For instance Apple's latest Watch has the addition of an ECG function, which has the potential to identify previously undiagnosed heart conditions like atrial fibrillation.

Another example is the medical device company Medtronic, which has created an app that lets people with internet-enabled pacemakers share data via their smartphone, directly with their doctor. These are just cursory examples amidst a whole slew of wearables and smartphone-based solutions which the health industry is now being forced to get behind, simply because they are so powerful at such low cost.

3. New Players in the Industry

Large pharmaceutical corporations have traditionally dominated the private sector in healthcare. However today, pretty much every big tech player in the consumer market, is now either aggressively entering the health market, or they have plans to dominate it.

While Apple represents the former, Google exemplifies the latter. Although their position in the health-tracking wearables market with Google Wear and Fit is already known, Google recently created a unit called Health, and appointed a new CEO. Much less well-known, this initiative is seeing a huge amount of effort and resources go into artificial intelligence for healthcare through its DeepMind unit. Amazon has similar goals but from a completely different angle, with a version of Prime for healthcare - using its expertise and infrastructure to disrupt everything from the pharmaceutical supply chain to Medicare management.

It’s for these reasons that Transparency Market Research foresees a 2025 digital health market escalating to a value of $536.6bn. This may even be an underprediction, because exploding tech companies have unprecedented growth rates fused with an uncanny ability to successfully jump into completely new markets. We only have to look at Jeff Bezo’s move from home delivery, to launching consumers into space with Blue Origin.

The big tech companies time has come, and they now look set to roll into healthcare like a digital tsunami.

4. The Reinvention of Big Pharma

This threat of this competition from big tech is putting immense pressure on big pharma companies to switch-up their games and reinvent themselves in terms how they grow their markets. Initiatives like Bayer’s G4A are seeing the pharma industry partner with digital health tech innovators, with goal of creating new products that go way beyond the scope of just pharmaceuticals. Rather than invest all their R&D into the next improvement of a particular pill or drug, they are looking to diversify R&D into new treatment modalities, better ways to administer and monitors drugs, and to create synergistic interventions, for example combining cognitive drugs with cognitive therapies.

These synergistic interventions could be a game changer in themselves. NeuroTracker is a member of the Digital Therapeutics Alliance, and has already conducted a pilot study showing that cognitive training can sustainably enhance the effects of cognitive drugs. This combined approach of stimulating neuroplasticity both functionally and biologically shows great promise. For this reason, NeuroTracker is being used in several clinical research programs with partners in the pharma industry.

The Transformation of Healthcare

This combination of new regulatory standards, emerging technologies, major tech companies, and a reinvention of big pharma, is set to drive a truly revolutionary change in healthcare. The added fact that this transformation has been long overdue, means that it is going to happen extremely rapidly.

In just the next five years we will see healthcare evolving from a medicine-based approach, into a whole new intelligent and 24/7 patient-centric care. This late arrival to the digital age will happen on a scale like the transition from horses to cars. The result will be safer, cheaper, more accessible, and more effective healthcare. Look forward to it, because it will benefit us all.

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