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All the Things in Digital Health You’ve Missed During COVID-19

By Bertalan Meskó, MD, PhD Director of The Medical Futurist Institute (Keynote Speaker, Author & Futurist)

It’s been enough for a bit, isn’t it? For three months now, there has been little space in the world for any other kind of news. That is, news without the word ‘coronavirus’. But there was innovation, there is excitement and, well, even some weird (although useful!) inventions that appeared while the world has been in lockdown. So here’s an outlook on such news, all, promise, without that particular C-word.

Hospitals have been facing great challenges recently. But they are on the verge of a new era that brings better care and more focus on the patient. This is a trend we have been talking about since The Medical Futurist started and finally it’s gaining momentum. Robots already have their use in many hospitals. Researchers have created a tabletop device that will help them directly access patients to draw blood or insert catheters.

The robot uses artificial intelligence and near-infrared and ultrasound imaging to accurately pinpoint blood vessels. It also improves success rates and procedure times compared to expert healthcare professionals. Research suggests that in terms of blood drawing, failures occur in every 5th procedure. This is due to small, twisted or collapsed blood vessels, typical for kids, elderly or trauma patients. A widespread use of this technology would free up resources. These would also allow healthcare professionals to focus more on other critical aspects of medical care. 

Ultra-fast genomic sequencing as the new standard

Still in the hospital setting, let’s move onto genomic sequencing. Full genome sequencing still takes days, and it’s a costly endeavour. However, researchers are working hard to make these tests more accessible. 

This is a hot issue. But just as with many innovations, the initial enthusiasm needs to be brought to the ground to see if it really works as it should. Nothing shows better that this technology is moving forward as standard care, than there’s already an insurer that covers its use. Blue Shield of California covers sequencing of babies and children who have life-threatening and unexplained medical conditions. This ultra-rapid genome sequencing can bring results in three days or less. The insurance company expects to cover this technology for about 200-250 babies or children annually in California. They also hope to expand this to the entire country.

Wearables in the eye and for the heart

The above-mentioned initial enthusiasm diminished in Google and Novartis regarding digital contact lenses that could measure blood glucose levels in tears. They abandoned the project when they felt it was scientifically impossible. And now researchers in South Korea seem to reach a breakthrough in this technology.

Researchers at Pohang University reported the development of such smart contact lenses. At the same time they controllably release a drug that may help treat diabetic retinopathy drug delivery. The device can also communicate with smartphones. This seems like another revolutionary step for diabetes management and also for the wearables market.

Talking about wearables, Fitbit has recently launched its large-scale heart study, aiming to gain upon its main competitor: Apple Watch. Apple’s Heart Study, began last year with an astonishing number of 420.000 participants. However, many of them lack commitment. They failed to follow up with a study doctor after they had atrial fibrillation according to their watches.

Now Fitbit launched its own study, aiming for 200,000-250,000 Fitbit owners to participate. Their devices will monitor the owner’s heart rates through the device’s PPG sensors. Interpreted by an algorithm, the device will notify its wearer of irregularities. It will also offer free telehealth visit and if needed, an ECG patch through the post. The stakes are high – the wearables market is booming and both companies want to lead the ride.

Giants fly high

While these companies want to grow, Amazon is reported to try decreasing its sales. Why? To be able to catch up with demand growth due to… the C-word. For weeks, the tech giant has stopped coupons, promotional deals and product recommendations. All this in order to slow traffic on the site, CNBC reported. The company has slowed down advertising, reviews, and its affiliate marketing. Fulfilled by Amazon programs were also cut.

The company also placed strict limits on incoming goods, putting straight focus on essential goods for families in need. Amazon has seen record downloads in its grocery app and had to hire more than 150,000 new workers this spring. Experts predict massive growth for the eCommerce pie, so Amazon won’t need to worry much about its incomes. Especially that these decreasing actions have ended.

Amazon has been maybe overly successful in its sales, but UPS and CVS gained their own momentum in the meantime. They launched a delivery service of prescription drugs – with drones. It’s long overdue for drones to disrupt medical transportation, as they are perfect drug delivery systems. So far, we’ve seen them in places like Rwanda, where they were able to provide medicine to remote locations. These places had little or no access to a traditional healthcare system.

Now UPS and CVS made the “flying pharmacies of the future”, serving to the country’s largest retirement community in Florida. UPS Flight Forward fulfills same-day delivery of time- or temperature-sensitive medicines to the community’s 135k residents. The joint attempt’s trial run was back in November 2019. Then UPS delivered medical prescriptions from a CVS pharmacy in North Carolina. In order to comply with regulations, UPS received the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Carrier certification to operate a drone air carrier.

In September 2019, Walmart launched a digital healthcare site. On it, consumers can make doctor’s appointments as well as schedule hearing tests and immunisations. Low-priced Walmart retail clinics already operate in some states in the US. By moving into the retail clinic field, the company has the potential to change the way Americans receive medical care. One of such steps is their cooperation with Verizon.

The two partners will put 5G services into two Walmart stores this year. They aim to help out with digital health services. These will include in-store video chats with doctors and real-time medical data. As with medical drones, this is only a first promising step that will lead to more efficient telemedicine services – and shops, becoming medical hubs for the convenience of consumers.

And finally, from all the way up, now let’s take a turn… all the way down. Weird news from the researchers at Stanford University, who developed a smart toilet with a built-in, upward facing camera. The device will analyse faeces and urine as they pass through. This is a useful feature for people who are genetically predisposed to certain conditions. This technology could negate traditional stool tests, and detect early warning signs of cancer and other serious diseases. 

Over the past months, we have seen our world turn upside down. We have also seen how all this has brought out the best of humanity. Connectivity and tolerance go hand in hand with disruptive technologies and innovation in finding a cure for the pandemic.

Digital health technology became in many places a reality and we believe the best ones are here to stay. Some we have collected above, others are in the waiting. So let’s stay in touch and let me show you how the future of healthcare is becoming a reality today.

Dr. Bertalan Mesko, PhD is The Medical Futurist and Director of The Medical Futurist Institute analyzing how science fiction technologies can become reality in medicine and healthcare. As a geek physician with a PhD in genomics, he is a keynote speaker and an Amazon Top 100 author.

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Byron Adonis Mutingwende