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New technologies and industry collaboration will help fight chronic illnesses

Published on 17/03/20 at 01:19pm

Authored by Dan Boot, Head of Digital Innovation at RB Health.

Around the world, populations are aging. According to the World Health Organisation, the global population over the age of 60 will double between 2015 and 2050, jumping from 900 million to 2 billion.

While lengthening of life brings with it opportunities, it is undeniably linked to the dramatic increase we’re seeing in degenerative cognitive conditions such as dementia. In England and Wales, for example, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, is the leading cause of death, with one in eight British citizens now dying from the disease.

Other chronic conditions including diabetes, heart disease and pain are also on the rise, thanks to modern lifestyle factors such as mass urbanisation, easily available convenience food and an increase in sedentary working patterns.

With people living longer and chronic diseases on the up, healthcare systems are understandably feeling the pressure. While nations should be looking at how they can better equip these to cater to their populations’ changing needs, more must also be done to empower global consumers to take better care of their own health.

Bringing digital healthcare solutions to life

In a bid to encourage and facilitate greater levels of self-care, consumer healthcare companies are turning to advanced and digital technologies. A recent report from RB, Consumer Health Futures, catalogues the vast array of technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and nanotechnologies, which are expanding the arsenal available to healthcare innovators. However, accessing this will demand collaboration. 

It’s critical that we break down silos in the healthcare sector and blend expertise from across disciplines if we’re to bring the next generation of digitally enabled healthcare solutions to life. At RB, we’re working with external partners including technologists, consumer behavioural specialists and those working in the health industry, to build our existing knowledge and fully unlock digital technologies’ potential.

Below we look at the crucial role that technologies are already playing in combatting chronic conditions and how their future evolution could deliver the next generation of preventative healthcare solutions. But only if we can work together. 

Diagnostics disrupted by artificial intelligence

AI and machine learning (ML) algorithms have advanced rapidly over the past decade. These are now enabling healthcare teams to analyse the reams of data generated through genetic testing, clinical trials and health records to identify patterns and trends within it.

In a number of fields, such as personalised nutrition, this data insight is already being harnessed by healthcare professionals, who are using it to identify where personalised solutions will be effective – and cost effective. Moving forward, we fully anticipate that the same principles will be applied to chronic conditions, improving the effectiveness of treatments immeasurably.

AI’s potential to identify chronic health problems extends beyond the lab though. Babylon Health’s AI triage service achieves a score of 81% on a diagnosis exam, compared to a five-year average score for human clinicians of 72%. This accuracy is improving popular confidence in AI, so that we’re likely to see the diagnosis of more and more health conditions entrusted to the technology.

As AI algorithms become more predictive, they’ll enable individuals to assess their vital measurements in real time. Smart phones could track users’ heart and respiratory rates, hydration, blood pressure and blood sugar levels, potentially helping them recognise when they are at risk from chronic health conditions before they even occur.

Such predictive solutions hold huge potential to benefit global consumers, healthcare systems and economies. However, this will only be realised if they are credible and effective. Consumer healthcare providers must work closely with data scientists, technologists and a whole host of other specialist parties to ensure that any applications bought to market meet the expectations of consumers, industry and regulators.

Fending off cognitive degeneration

Health and social care practitioners are already turning to digital technologies to help combat chronic conditions associated with ageing, such as loneliness and depression. The last three years have seen the establishment of a number of VR platforms, such as Rendever and Viarama, all enabling elderly people to experience new things or relive fond memories from their homes.

Moving forward, digital technologies will also play an increasing role in maintaining brain health and preventing degenerative diseases such as dementia. This is another space where we’re witnessing rapid innovation, with consumer healthcare companies developing app-based brain training elements that assess users, identify specific areas for cognitive improvement and offer personalised training regimes based on the results.

The development and deployment of such hybrid solutions presents a significant step for the consumer healthcare sector and clearly demonstrates why interdisciplinary collaboration will be vital to combatting chronic conditions, such as dementia, in future.

Technology will also soon be capable of identifying the initial signs of degenerative conditions. As more devices connect through the Internet of Things (IoT), homes of those more susceptible to these conditions will become equipped with a suite of connected products that can monitor health and provide help where necessary.

Soon sensors will be widely used to recognise when someone has fallen over in the home, while voice recognition software, such as Alexa, could detect the verbal clues demonstrated by people in the early stages of degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Taking health tracking to the next level

Wearable technologies are being embraced by global consumers, eager to take their health into their own hands. The tracking of food and exercise is now standard daily practice for many as they seek to understand how to control and improve the lifestyle factors that play a part in defending against chronic conditions.

Recognising the phenomenal potential of wearables to engage an increasingly tech savvy public, the NHS has deployed fitness trackers as part of a pilot programme to help manage diabetes. In a trial targeted at those at risk, devices were used to monitor individuals’ exercise levels and enable them to set and monitor goals. 68% of those referred to pilot digital schemes engaged in the programme, compared with about half of people offered face-to-face support.

While significant, such use cases only hint at wearables’ potential to improve users’ health. Engineers at Rutgers University have developed a microchip designed to be integrated into personal devices, such as an Apple Watch. This is able to analyse sweat for different biomarkers and notify wearers of signs of ill health.

Apple itself is also building on the increasing ubiquity of wearables to drive forward medical research.  In 2015, the company launched its ResearchKit, a framework that allows developers to create iPhone apps for medical research purposes. Last year the Movement Disorder API was added to this, enabling app developers to track the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease via the Apple Watch. Information gathered could be instrumental in tackling this debilitating condition, providing the medical community with a greater understanding of the disease’s progression and the effectiveness of medication.

Addressing the problem of pain

While pain is associated with a vast range of chronic health problems, it is also a chronic condition in itself, impacting one in five adults worldwide.

Over the coming decades, pain relief will be taken to the next realm as virtual reality is adopted a method of pain management. This works by providing pain suffers with an over-whelming sensory experience, that effectively deprioritises their condition. There is already a bank of clinical evidence to support the validity of the approach and several companies are already established in this space, including XRHealth, the first Certified Virtual Reality (VR) Medical Company to develop FDA/CE Registered Medical Applications. 

We also expect to see ingestible smart pills modified to include sensors made from naturally occurring materials. These will monitor things such as stomach acid and body temperature, notifying users if action needs to be taken to manage their health.

Collaboration will underpin industry innovation

While the current and future solutions discussed above vary hugely in their remit, they all have one thing in common; they display the incredible potential of digital technologies in the fight against chronic conditions. Unlocking this will only become more critical as chronic health conditions multiply and global healthcare systems buckle under their weight.

Over the next three decades, we’ll see a decisive shift in focus from macro health provision to personalised, data-driven healthcare products and services. But to drive this shift, we must evolve our approach to innovation and explode disciplinary and organisational siloes to deliver collaboration in the healthcare market.

None of the solutions discussed are impossible, but bringing them to fruition, scaling them and placing them into the hands of global consumers will demand researchers, clinicians, technologists, ingredients specialists and many more parties to work together. It is only by combining forces that we can fast-track the future of healthcare and stand a real chance of combatting chronic conditions.

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