Tech-enabled healthcare: How innovations are shaping the future of medicine

By Dr Veronica Muzquiz Edwards,
Founder and CEO of InGenesis Inc.

Health connects each one of us to one another. No matter where we are in the world, who we are or what we do, the state of our health is a key determinant in our quality of life. Simply put, it is our most valuable asset.

Individual health crises can be disastrously grim, and if not addressed adequately can result in a chain of negative events that upend not only the quality of life for the one inflicted, but their family and friends as well. Likewise, as we witnessed with the COVID pandemic, these events on a global scale can stretch healthcare systems to breaking point, decimate whole industries, cripple national economies and hinder global development. These negative outcomes illustrate the critical importance of protecting health for all, everywhere.

Despite negative impacts, the pandemic reinvigorated a global impetus for innovation, especially in the field of medicine. From gene editing and artificial intelligence (AI)-powered diagnostics to wearable medical devices and the rapid growth of telehealth, today’s multifaceted technology breakthroughs offer countless benefits for patients and providers – but only if done right, with people at the core.

A need for innovation

The COVID pandemic did not start the technology revolution in healthcare. That movement had started well before 2020, spurred by several key megatrends such as the ageing of the global population. According to the United Nations, the number of people aged 65 and over is expected to more than double in the next 25 years, reaching 1.6 billion in 2050, equivalent to 1 in 6 people worldwide. The number of people aged 80 or older is growing even faster.

The ageing phenomenon has the potential to have an even greater impact than any past pandemic, as older people tend to consume more healthcare resources than the rest of the population. In the United States alone, people aged 65 or over accounted for 17 % of the population but represented 37 % of personal healthcare demand in 2020. In 2019, this segment of the population needed 280 700 physicians to provide their healthcare, but that number will need to rise to over 400 000 by 2034.

Extrapolated to the global picture, the healthcare provider shortage is even more dire, with the World Health Organization (WHO) suggesting a global shortage of 4.3 million physicians, nurses and other health professionals. Aside from sheer numbers, this shift could also influence how the field prioritizes its care delivery. We may, for example, need more doctors who are generalists rather than specialists as their patients are likely to suffer from comorbidities and require more generalist care.

We must also remember that medical professionals are ageing, too. More than one-third of doctors in OECD countries were aged 55 and above in 2019. Without thorough health workforce planning and a strong contingent of young professionals primed to step in, this could represent a real problem.

This is an area where innovation and technology can help fill the gap – without representing a silver bullet. In his book on the use of AI in healthcare, Deep Medicine, Eric Topol suggests that this technology can be an important adjunct in assisting physicians in the delivery of healthcare across a broad spectrum of services. This includes acting as a force multiplier in addressing healthcare professional shortages.

Physicians have already been working side by side with AI and other technology tools for years. If developed and used responsibly, technology could further boost the fields of telehealth, disease and pharmaceutical research, and precision medicine. This would lead to better outcomes for patients as well as a more efficient, effective and impactful healthcare industry.

A prescription for standards

While the promises of technological innovation are alluring, it is important to keep the quality of patient care in mind. AI may lead to more personalized care in the sense that doctors will be able to design tailored treatments for patients and deliver them with increased precision, but we must be careful not to compromise on how personal care is. Remember, no matter how “high tech” healthcare becomes, at its best and most effective, healthcare is a “high touch” practice.

In a hospital, patients have nothing but their gown. They are at their most vulnerable, and they need a human connection in the care they receive. This is the constant that must be protected at all costs. If the healthcare industry is to capitalize responsibly on the promises of innovation, it must go beyond outcomes and consider the patient experience, too.

Technology is already being implemented and developed at breakneck speeds at every level of the healthcare field. What is needed now is a quality platform where the industry can gather methods, processes, performance monitoring tools, accountability mechanisms and a sound risk mitigation apparatus. For this, ISO is the only prescription.

ISO’s International Standards, built on expert input, are the invisible fabric that will help us create this platform. These standards already exist, and more are being developed continuously – but a standard that is not adopted is meaningless. The future of healthcare is such a big conversation involving so many different voices that it can be hard to know where to start. Why not start by adopting standards and using them as the basis for future progress?

If large organizations and thought leaders like the WHO, national governments and industry leaders can embody this message and take it forward, we can usher in the next era of healthcare worldwide.