Healthcare & Safety

The New Health-Care Superhero: Technology

Technology has invigorated the debate on how to deliver quality health care to all populations. It is already transforming the health and wellness landscape, but the near future is offering tantalizing advancements that will speed progress toward the goal.
— By Malibu Kothari

The transformation of the global health-care industry has been ongoing for the last decade or so, supported by technology, big data, and laws like the U.S. HITECH Act that promotes the “adoption and meaningful use of health information technology.”

Despite the advances, there are still disparities in health-care delivery and health-care quality among population groups in the U.S. and around the world. Rural residents, minority groups and people in developing countries are just a few examples.

As technology continues to advance, it is hoped that many of these disparities can be reduced or eliminated. There is a new wave of technological advancements that will take health and wellness opportunities to individuals, connecting them to the medical community and services in innovative ways.

The Next Wave of Technology
Though technology has already expanded and improved access to health care, there is a long way to go.

Countries like the U.S. and the UK have two of the best health-care systems in the world, yet millions of people still have unmet health-care needs because they are unable to access primary care due to lack of availability or accessibility. In the U.S., it is estimated that 25 percent of the counties have no medical center. The UK has national health care, but the system is becoming overwhelmed with people who have multiple chronic medical conditions; they fall into a crevice between generalized care by family physicians and intermittent specialized hospital care. Both countries are considered health-care leaders, and access is improving, but they still have trouble promoting wellness and delivering health care. In the poorest countries, billions of people have no access to health care.

Technology is already important to health care, but the next wave of technologies can provide many of the solutions to continuing and growing challenges. There is a long list of innovations in early stage of development or use that can change the course of health care and wellness.

Mobile technology is one. From portable ultrasound equipment that is smartphone-enabled to digital medicine that enables medical personnel to deliver services via mobile, satellite-connected devices, mobile technology can take health and wellness services to locations where there is no medical center. Patient mobile apps are proving to be valuable technologies for wellness programs in areas of diet, exercise tracking, and changing consumer and patient behaviors.

The next wave of health-care technology includes wearables which are devices consumers wear that communicate user-generated data to medical professionals. The wearables bring mobile devices, digital media and health technology together, and are certain to play a growing role in monitoring chronic diseases, people who are homebound, and people who have no access to local medical care.

Integrated mHealth is the linkage between apps and mobile technology, and the existing health-care system. The integrated mHealth system is used by consumers, health-care professionals and health-system administrators.

Also important to health care are social networks which promote health and wellness. For example, contests encourage people to participate in a group weight loss program with each person setting goals, and tracking and sharing progress.

Despite the advances, there are still disparities in health-care delivery and health-care quality among population groups in the U.S. and around the world. Rural residents, minority groups, and people in developing countries are just a few examples.
Predicting Health
On an even more sophisticated level is analytics and predictive analytics. The ability to collect and analyze billions of data bits from real patient cases and research in order to better manage disease by predicting outcomes holds enormous potential for improving population health and wellness while lowering costs. The statistical methods are also called learning models because they improve their predictive accuracy with each new case data added.

IBM’s Watson is groundbreaking artificial intelligence that is likely to change the way health care is managed and delivered. Watson is being used in several industries, including insurance and retail, but the health-focused effort promises to bring the kind of paradigm change needed to expand health care to the under-served. Watson Health has cognitive capabilities or artificial intelligence, learning by collecting and analyzing data from health records and using image analytics. In fact, the IBM Watson Health headquarters opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to more efficiently manage the numerous partnerships with health-care organizations that enable Watson solutions to expand.

The cloud is another technology that promises to change the ability to deliver improved health care to a wider population base. Health care has been an under-utilizer of the cloud until recently. As hospitals, physicians, and insurance companies look for ways to lower costs and improve service, they are finding the cloud is an important technology resource that lowers information and innovation barriers of health-care systems. Cloud computing facilitates Electronic Health Records and medical imaging sharing among authorized physicians and other medical personnel; creates a place where invaluable data on treatments, symptoms, costs, results and performance is tracked and analyzed; and enables on-demand access to the large computing facilities needed to access the massive amount of available data.

Not a Perfect Answer Is technology the perfect answer?
The World Health Organization has pointed out that medical devices are indispensable to delivering quality health care, but they also contribute disproportionately to health-care costs. In developed nations the rising cost of health care is forcing some people out of the system. In the poorest nations, the technology costs are prohibitive.

Another major issue concerns privacy. How does the health industry preserve patient privacy and secure health information?

Though there are questions remaining, it is safe to say that technology may not be the perfect answer to expanding health-care access, but it certainly offers the most hope as it is perfected. Technology promises to be the superhero of health care.