Good prognosis for digital healthcare

Whether it’s transferring money, ordering a pizza or even finding a date, technology is a part of our everyday experience. It’s increasingly part of our healthcare too.

Experts project the global digital health market will reach $379bn by 2024. This will be primarily driven by the American market which could account for as much as $152bn.

Digital health is an umbrella term for anything which, as the US Food and Drug Administration puts it, enables the “convergence of people, information, technology and connectivity to improve health care and health outcomes”. It encompasses consumer wearables like Fitbit to hospital electronic health records, telemedicine and genomics. But certain overarching technological trends are emerging which will dictate the future of how healthcare is provided.

Two of the most captivating are cybersecurity and augmented reality (AR). Cybersecurity is becoming a concern within the healthcare industry. The understandable concerns around health data privacy, coupled with the increasing digitisation of that same data across platforms, has led to a situation where healthcare organisations are vulnerable to cyber-attack.

There has been a surge in ‘ransomware’ attacks, where a hacker extorts money in exchange for returning stolen healthcare data. This cyber threat does not just affect healthcare providers. The advent of the Internet of Things gives rise to fears that medical devices could be hacked. The need to combat these threats, along with the need for compliance with emerging legislation, means cybersecurity’s role within healthcare will only increase in importance.

Irish startup Nova Leah has been among the first to address this issue, developing the first expert cybersecurity risk-assessment system for medical devices. Founded and led by international subject matter expert Anita Finnegan, at Dundalk IT, Nova Leah provides an automated solution for implementing and maintaining cybersecurity requirements right across medical-device product portfolios. Opportunities abound for such companies that can mitigate the real and mounting risks.

AR was once science fiction. Unlike its high-profile cousin Virtual Reality (VR), which offers a digital construct of a realistic setting, AR allows for the blending of digital components into the actual environment – as in Pokemon Go. 3D4 Medical in Dublin has long recognised AR’s potential to reshape healthcare, and has pioneering projects in place – working closely with a global tech giant – which will see the company apply AR to its exhaustive anatomical model. This offers exciting possibilities for transforming the way healthcare providers engage with patients.

3D4 is developing technology to morph a patient’s MRI scans to its models, letting medics adapt the augmented model to the patient’s unique characteristics. Developments are under way to give a visual representation of the effect of disease on the body.

The industry will not be without challenges. A volatile political climate presents obvious challenges in a heavily regulated sector. Companies need to be agile to deal with unexpected politically-created roadblocks – from new regulations to altered trade agreements.

Seemingly every niche is catered for by software developers and entrepreneurs in places like Boston and Silicon Valley. Inevitably, major companies seem poised to dominate the market – and this process is under way. Through acquisitions, and the utilisation of superior resources, major incumbent tech, medical device, pharmaceutical and insurance companies are gradually gaining market share. Already 10pc of Fortune 500 companies are new entrants to healthcare and digital health.

The digitisation of healthcare represents a vital opportunity. It is well acknowledged that in the current US model, healthcare costs are high, coverage is incomplete and outcomes not at optimum level. Digital healthcare offers an opportunity to change this.

Donal Cummings is a trade development executive at Enterprise Ireland, Boston.