There’s no denying that healthcare has undergone dramatic changes in the last ten years. New technology and innovations available to patients enables them monitor and take responsibility for their own health, and improved devices and tools available to doctors and other health professionals can make more informed decisions. Healthcare technology keeps moving along. An article in The Guardian looked at the top eight technologies that’ll keep transforming healthcare. For Africa, the balance and pace of investment in the eight technologies will be different to developed countries.
Although not new, it’s clear that the smartphone’s healthcare potential’s yet to be realised. Smartphones can serve as the hub for new diagnostic and treatment technologies. We’ve seen apps developed to support a wide range of healthcare activities, such as healthier life-styles, diabetic patients, treatment adherence and depression. Patients can also use tools like the AliveCOR ECG, embedded in a smartphone case, which helps interpret heart test results via an app and facilitates sharing with clinicians. They’re also ideal for gathering large amounts of data to improve understanding of diseases in populations.
At-home or portable diagnostics
Clinicians can now bring hospital-level diagnostics devices to patients’ homes, such as portable x-ray machines, blood-testing kits and other technologies.
Drug adherence is a big problem, especially for patients with long term conditions. It’s estimated that between a third and a half of all medication prescribed to people with long-term conditions isn’t taken as recommended. Several technologies are already under development to address the problem. There’s sensor technology so small it can be swallowed and combined with drugs in smart pill form. When the pill dissolves in the stomach, the sensor’s activated and transmits data through a wearable patch to a smartphone app. Patients and clinicians can see how well they are adhering to their prescription, though it raises important questions about patients’ privacy and autonomy.
Digital therapeutics are health or social care interventions delivered using a smartphone or a laptop. They embed clinical practice and therapy into a digital form to provide computerised cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Advances in genome sequencing and the associated field of genomics will give doctors a better understanding of how diseases affect different individuals and populations. These genetic profiles of people’s diseases and knowledge of their response to treatment, it should be possible to predict their response to treatment and prognosis more reliably.
Machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence that enables computers to learn without being explicitly programmed, meaning they can teach themselves to change when exposed to new data. Enlitic, IBM’s Watson division and Google’s Deep Mind have started to explore potential applications in healthcare.
Blockchains are decentralised databases that keep records of how data’s created and changed over time. They’re trusted as authoritative records without a single, central authority guaranteeing accuracy and security. Electronic health records are widely used, but they are usually centralised, provided by a small number of suppliers. Some commentators have described how records using blockchain technology would bring benefits like resilience and encourage interoperability, with patients and clinicians given encryption keys to control who sees the data.
Social networks bring together people with interests in healthcare to support each other, share learning and provide platforms for tracking health data, helping people manage their condition and contributing to research.
New technologies bring new opportunities for Africa’s health systems. They can help to improve the accuracy, reliability, availability and add value of information gathered, change how and where care’s delivered and offer new ways to prevent, predict, detect and treat illness. The numerous choices makes rigorous strategies, plans and investment decisions challenging, but essential.