Digital health technology: faster access to better services, by design

The final article in this series showing how technology startups can shape the future discusses the prospects for digital health technology, including sensors, apps, and AI, to improve access to services, care standards, and patient outcomes for all.

This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of Startups Magazine. Click here to subscribe

Authors: John Bowman, Marketing Director and Andrew Pockson, Engineering Manager, at Anglia Components

Raising awareness

Digital health technology has tremendous potential to extend the reach and reduce the cost of health services. Delivering anytime, anywhere usability, digital health has many facets ranging from online booking systems to remotely monitoring patients on virtual wards. In addition, there are longer-term benefits to be gained by empowering people to improve their health generally; in particular, by raising awareness among the tech-savvy young.

Widespread smartphone ownership is a critical enabler of the digital health revolution. Technology companies and innovators can assist by delivering apps and personal wearable monitors that connect with these computers in patients’ pockets. At the service-provider end of the chain, online platforms and Cloud applications are needed, as well as more powerful, professional-grade devices for duties such as monitoring and recording vital signs, scanning and imaging, and managing and distributing drug inventory.

While the prospects are exciting, there are a few concerns. Patients and some practitioners can find new technology challenging to use. Others question the effectiveness of apps or online therapy. In addition, data protection must be assured. So, there is scope for thoughtful and user-centric design to help increase user confidence in digital health technology.

Opportunities for innovators

All the time, new technologies are emerging and evolving, such as more advanced sensors and non-invasive monitoring techniques that enable personal wearable devices to collect more data from the human body, more easily. Just compare the options today for managing a condition like diabetes, against those of a few years ago. The traditional process comprising a finger-prick test followed by insulin injection – irksome at best and distressing for some, including children – can now be handled with a wearable continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) patch that can coordinate with a wearable pump that delivers insulin to the body through a canula. The pump is moved to a different location every two or three days.

Now, cutting-edge research promises to make things even easier and more comfortable by developing patches that can pass insulin through the skin, eliminating the pump and canula. Both fast- and slow-release versions of these patches have already been tested. Projects like these suggest there may be opportunities to perfect other types of transdermal patches for controlled release of medication, possibly leveraging nanotechnology to enhance drug delivery through the skin.

Longer, healthier lives

Digital health can also help ensure adequate care as the world’s population grows older. This is a global trend that will challenge healthcare systems everywhere. By 2050, about 22% of people worldwide will be over 60, compared to about 12% in 2015, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The number of people over 80 will triple compared to 2020. In short, people are living longer. However, the WHO says health will determine whether those extra years bring more opportunities to find fulfilment and contribute to society or have a less positive impact. While life expectancy is increasing, it says the proportion of life spent in good health has remained largely constant. Hence, health authorities can expect care services to face increasing pressure in the future.

There is an opportunity for digital health technology to improve this by empowering people to take greater ownership of their health throughout their lives. Getting information that can help seek treatment early, or receiving personalised lifestyle recommendations, can avert more serious problems later in life. Here we can expect innovations such as AI to have a major impact, leveraging the ability to identify anomalies in an individual patient’s signs, compared to the norm, or - conversely - to spot early indicators that are similar to those of other sufferers.

The AI effect

The role of AI in digital healthcare warrants clarification if service providers and patients are to reap the maximum benefits. Some may fear the loss of human practitioners and the personal touch from services. Instead, AI and digital health technology in general gives the opportunity to utilise medical professionals’ time more effectively. These highly trained individuals are in short supply worldwide, which makes access to services difficult, extends waiting times, and imposes heavy demands on clinicians’ time. AI models can be trained in a particular skill – for example to inspect X-rays and other scans to a very high degree of accuracy – relatively quickly. Moreover, that skill, once acquired, can be scaled with extra processor cycles and memory. The machines can thus triage cases quickly to direct each one towards the appropriate personal attention.

The boost to efficiency, which can be achieved through digital health technology, can already be seen in new care techniques such as virtual wards. This concept enables a relatively small team to supervise a group of patients, living in their own homes and monitored remotely through sensors worn on the body and installed in the house. Supervisors can see the sensor data via a dashboard and make decisions on the condition and care needs of individual patients as if they were on a conventional hospital ward.

Clearly, many of the opportunities in digital health, for product developers, lie in creating wearable sensors that can improve standards of care and enhance patient comfort. Imaginative use of the digitised knowledge becoming available in diverse fields such as psychology, nutrition, and sports medicine can help create new solutions to familiar problems.

Working in collaboration with vendors such as Analog Devices, Omron, Murata, Sensirion, STMicroelectronics, and Rohm Semiconductor, along with a host of other suppliers specialising in health-related products, Anglia are playing a crucial role in advancing this revolution. It is able to leverage this collective expertise and innovative technologies to offer designers comprehensive solutions, including reference designs and starter kits tailored for devices like activity tracking, fall detection, and multi-sensor health monitors. These offerings not only provide a great starting point for innovators but also ensure the seamless integration of cutting-edge technology into the digital health landscape, ultimately benefiting patients and healthcare providers alike.