Telemedicine will reduce healthcare waiting lists and “electronic” medicines are already as effective as real ones.
- The digital health business will equal the medicines market by the end of the decade, virtual doctor visits already account for one third of the total;
- Remote services? Initially useful for slowing infection rates during pandemics, they now help the healthcare system to evolve;
- “Wearable” devices for prevention and electronic health records, integration is already reality;
- Diagnosis and treatment, but also rehabilitation: processing “big data” makes everything easier;
- On the horizon, digital therapies that engage patients but will require a doctor’s prescription.
One thousand four hundred billion dollars1, this will be the value of the medicines market less than 3 years from now, with new genomics-driven products leading the way. By 2030, the digital health market could equal that of medicinal products. Suffice to consider that, from telemedicine to robots, from imaging to apps, two years ago the market was worth just 150 billion. During the pandemic a new era was born. Digital health did not just grow, it exploded.
Telemedicine, egg of Columbus against waiting lists
Smart devices used to prevent, treat, support the disabled, carry out research, and reduce spending before 2020 were purchased with great care, especially in Europe, and some languished in hospital basements. Then, in the most serious phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, came the turning point2. Virtual doctors came on the scene to monitor patients at home; next generation ultrasound machines were introduced into homes by manufacturers and local authorities. Using the internet, they sent real-time reports to hospital pulmonologists charged with establishing whether patients had COVID-19 pneumonia and therefore needed to be hospitalised “skipping” the emergency department admission procedure. What about patients who are not contagious? They were not abandoned. From their homes they benefited from ECGs or ultrasound scans with remote specialist diagnosis. Healthcare service managers hope that it will soon be possible to do away with waiting lists by providing patients with teleconsultations without them and their families having to waste time travelling to hospital. This is not just more convenient, it ultimately means saving many more lives.
From wearable devices to the evolution of electronic health records
Digital medicine is not just telemedicine, video consultations, and digital and audiovisual diagnosis and treatment reports. Prevention is perhaps its most exciting field of application. Twenty years ago, cardiologists were experimenting with mobile phones that sent the tracings of patients monitored at home after a heart attack live to “smart” ECG machines. Now, the app that records a patient’s parameters while at home or out for a walk and sends them to his or her specialist is included in any smartphone; as is the step tracker for keeping fit. It is estimated that, as a market, m-health mobile phone apps and wearable devices3 will be worth as much as 75 billion dollars by 20254. And there are ringtones that remind you when to take your blood pressure pill, a good example of a call to treatment compliance in order to optimise the effects of medication. A heartbeat taken at the wrist can travel from the smartwatch that records it to the mobile phone of a cardiologist in another town or of a personal trainer.
The health authorities are following with interest. And they are taking action to make those electronic health records that, in healthcare registry offices have replaced cardboard binders containing citizens’ data, “interactive”: a doctor authorised to consult them can enrol patients in clinical trials and involve “healthy” individuals in prevention programmes.
Robots for treatment and rehabilitation in hospitals
In meantime, robots have appeared in hospitals. They are no longer prototypes, but true protagonists of treatment, rehabilitation and support, including to people with disabilities. A robot that operates in a remote location controlled a thousand miles away by the hand of a surgeon in a leading healthcare facility is already reality; exoskeletons remotely controlled by a doctor or by a patient with a spinal injury, and smart wheelchairs for disabled people that are able to avoid obstacles are the present.
Digital therapies, the new frontier
Of the enormous e-health market, a small share – which will be 10 billion by 2025 – is growing at a rate of 20% a year: digital therapeutics (DTx)5, non-pharmacological treatments administered by apps that, in some cases backed up by the possibility of accessing not only clinical measurements but also genetic data, engage patients in exercise, meditation and monitoring sessions. Given their effectiveness, they are considered medicines on a par with active substances, and in countries like Germany a doctor’s prescription is required to use them6.
The key role of Big Pharma
Information Technologies are a significant driver of improvement for the healthcare system in any country. Health sector corporations play a decisive role in identifying applications for innovations and promoting their use in all sectors. This is why it is first and foremost essential to foster effective communication on technological developments with both healthcare professionals and patients. Making information more accessible is a possible mission to which the world of production can and must make its contribution.