There is a vast array of technology that companies, researchers and physicians are trying to apply to health care today to allow us to be more in-tune with our bodies. One glance at the showroom floors at International CES is enough to prove that point. Inflation of health care costs, development of apps and devices, and a surging connectivity are all factors contributing to the onslaught of digital health trends. With so many different types of technology at our fingertips, how can we decide which ones will lead the way for health care advancements in the next decade?
A few leaders in the field -- people with unique perspectives on digital health -- sat down for a panel discussion at the CES Digital Health Summit on Wednesday, Jan. 6. Dr. Daniel Kraft of Singularity University and Exponential Medicine, Tim Moore of Rochester Optical, and Robert Scoble of Rackspace Hosting joined moderator John Nosta, president of NostaLab, to give their input on which current and upcoming digital health technologies are hot.
Wearables, telemedicine, nanotechnology, 3D printing, visualization, artificial intelligence, genomics, cybersecurity, and traditional medical facilities each went under the microscope for an in-depth description of how it aids digital health, if it's following an upward trend, and, if it's not, what needs to happen to ensure its future relevance.
When it comes to wearable technology, accuracy and integration of data are key factors in whether a device will stay relevant. Speakers had a wide range of opinions on the importance of wearables in the digital health sector, ranging from four to ten on a scale of numerical importance.
Telemedicine, a growing trend in digital health, then took over the conversation, as it seems to have done over much of the Health and Wellness showroom floor at this year's CES. Speakers gave telemedicine, the practice of physicians advising, diagnosing and treating over a live video chat through a smartphone or computer, an average rating of 6.5 for significance in digital health. Much of the popularity stems merely from a dislike of waiting rooms and hospitals. But the overall cost of chatting with a physician through programs such as Doctor on Demand or MD Live can be vastly less burdensome than paying a visit to the emergency room just for advice and a prescription, which can easily be sent electronically. Often patients find themselves in need of medical advice while they are thousands of miles from their primary care physician. In such cases, telemedicine's accessibility and lower costs come in handy.
Next on the list of digital health trends was nanotechnology. The speakers believe nanotechnology's application to medicine is a natural evolution and a game changer for our bodies. Given an average rating of six, nanotechnology's precision and accuracy in helping to design drugs specifically matching our needs or tracing a small cancerous tumor in a patient's body make it a significant digital health trend, one that will see more action in the next few years.
3D printing took the cake as far as being the most impactful trend in digital health today. Its projected growth over the next decade also surpasses most. From printing medical devices at the space station to frames for surgeons, the "design it, print it, ship it" mantra is expected to advance digital health the most in the next few years. The panel stressed the use of 3D printing in medical education. The ability to print models of a heart for a medical student to operate on and to provide that safeguarded, practical method for students is helping 3D printing bring digital health into the future.
Which brings us to the next topic discussed - visualization. This rated highly among the speakers on the relevance scale in digital health, and was described by Moore as "an open runway for what we can do" with medicine. One of the problems with consumer health and digital health is that consumers don't always know what a certain number, e.g. blood pressure result, means. Visualizations (e.g. virtual reality, models, etc.) can turn wearable data into something meaningful. The newfound techniques we have to visualize what's happening in, and to, our bodies will bring digital health into a new, consumer-centric era.
Artificial intelligence is another digital health trend the speakers rated highly, and also called "frightening" - mostly because it's hard to tell exactly where AI will take us. However, the abilities granted to us by AI are endless. For example, AI can help physicians track a patient's health trends to catch dangerous signs before a heart attack or stroke occurs. It could usher in a new era of preventative medicine.
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Genomics was rated slightly lower than previously mentioned trends, though its importance in digital health is recognized. Genome sequencing, at the rate it's developing, is about to run the gamut from expensive $1,000 sequences to much cheaper $100 genomes. Integration of personal genetics and research (e.g. 23andMe collaborating with Genentech) will bring genomics slightly more to the forefront in the next few years.
But with all that data sharing and collaboration, what's ensuring consumer privacy? Cybersecurity was the next topic of discussion on the panel and was rated equally high by all speakers. However, cybersecurity in digital health was stressed to be relevant not because it makes users feel good, but because we feel we have to use it. Particularly in light of recent events, data donors must be even more careful and only share with sites and companies they trust and understand, if they want to use digital data to improve their health and well-being.
Lastly, the panel discussed the importance of traditional medical facilities -- from physicians' offices to hospitals -- in digital health. With the growing popularity of telemedicine, and cheaper and more ubiquitous digital health platforms, the dynamic of health care is clearly shifting away from traditional facilities.
As digital health moves into the mainstream, expect to see some exciting new ways to personalize medicine and understand your body in the next few years.