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2015: A year of promise and connectivity

How could technology impact healthcare in this year and what will be the key trends to follow?
Tech trends

Although, as I write this, we are only a few weeks into the new year, we are already seeing fresh announcements and promises being made in the world of technology. Many of these innovations have implications for the healthcare sector, and so it is time to get the crystal ball out and make some predictions about which areas will have the biggest impact on healthcare during the year.

As with any predictions about the future, there is an element of sticking my neck out here - all the more so because PME has asked me to return to these pages later in the year to review my forecasts and find out how that crystal ball has performed.

Already this year, CES (The Consumer Electronics Show) has come and gone with its annual showcase of future-focused technology. Although the term has been around a while, 2015 was widely declared the year of the 'Internet of Things' by attendees and manufacturers alike.

The world is certainly becoming smaller, with added connectivity meaning that I can now tell my coffee maker to put a pot on, while remotely allowing a friend into my home from the other side of the world, using nothing more than a smartphone; interesting though this is (especially to a technology aficionado like me), in itself it has limited implications for healthcare.

How about using the rise of the wearable as a starting point? Granted, this is more lifestyle and fitness related at the moment, but it could move more into the healthcare world once the sensors become more specialised and targeted than the current measures of heartbeat, distance walked/run and estimated calories burned.

But if I am going to make worthwhile predictions, they have to be more specific than that, so here are five distinct things which I believe will have the biggest impact on our world in 2015.

1. Technology partnerships
The first area to watch out for that will impact the pharmaceutical industry is not a new app or some science fiction hardware; it is the simple partnership. 
The amount of information on health collected by non-pharma companies is growing exponentially; getting this information into the hands of scientists and specialists at pharmaceutical companies will take us one step closer to true personalised medicines and treatments.

Take as an example 23andMe's recently announced deals with Pfizer and GenenTech. The first is a private company with its roots firmly planted in Google's investment fund; the other two are of course established pharmaceutical companies. Simply put, these deals will allow access to the DNA data of 23andMe customers on a previously impossible scale. True, there have been bumps along the way, not least the clampdown by the FDA on the technology company in the US - but it hasn't derailed the partnerships.

Similar collaborations include Novartis partnering with Google on the smart contact lens which can measure blood glucose levels in diabetes patients, and the recent announcement that Novartis will work with Qualcomm ventures to help bring digital tools front and centre in the healthcare world (Qualcomm sponsor the Tricorder X-Prize, so have some experience in this area already).

In short it will not be the apps and tools that will define the year; it will be the forward-thinking partnerships that will have the greatest impact.

Forward-thinking partnerships will have the greatest impact

2. Compliance apps
Taking a lead from 'wider world' developments, the second area which will see major developments during 2015 will be compliance. The Internet of Things is already here, and while my ability to put the coffee on remotely might not be strictly relevant, this is a development that could have a far-reaching impact on healthcare. 
We have already seen rudimentary attempts at using technology to support compliance in recent years, with the smart pill box and the more recent smart pill bottle, both of which were great first steps. But these will be superseded by the end of the year, with pharma companies tapping into the rise in popularity of smartphones, and the introduction of new wearables, equipped with NFC (Near Field Communication) capabilities.

The new Android operating system already takes advantage of NFC to disable the lock screen. It is not a far stretch of the imagination to incorporate a small radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag into a pill packet that will register in close proximity to a smart watch or bracelet, and relay the information to an app which can record the fact that a patient has at least picked up his medication for the day.

So much simpler than filling small compartments weekly and connecting it to a physical phone line, as is the case with the smart pill box.

3. Artificial intelligence
Systems such as IBM's Watson will keep on being refined and improved; couple this with the increase in the data available (so called 'Big Data'), and their accuracy will increase exponentially.

Limited tests have already proven that they can accurately diagnose cancer 90% of the time - versus a healthcare professional's average of 50%. True, this was a specifically targeted exercise; but with more data available to feed these computers' insatiable appetite for information, more accurate diagnostics for a greater range of conditions will be forthcoming.

Tie this into the genetic information that is becoming available from companies such as 23andMe, and we are moving ever closer to a personalised healthcare environment.

4. CT + 3D = Knowledge
This prediction is based on developments which are being made in two areas: the traditional CT scan and, strangely enough, 3D printing. Neither of these would usually spring to mind when the other is mentioned, so bear with me on this one.

In December, General Electric announced the development of a new digital CT scanner that captures higher resolution images in a shorter time than the existing models. This new scanner's ability to produce incredibly detailed images is, on its own, a massive step forward to understanding (and seeing) the inner workings of a patient's body.

Take this to the next level: using these images as a template to print in 3D the captured information, and you have a complete, detailed and acute analogue for a surgeon to examine in depth before the initial cut of any procedure, leading to a likelihood of fewer complications arising in the surgery itself.

This will be enhanced further by the increased resolution available in the 3D printing process itself, where we are moving on from extruding plastic lines to being able to print layers that measure 25 microns deep (1/1000th inch).

This is not a new development as such. A surgeon in New York printed a 3D model of an infant's heart in October last year before performing a procedure. But the combination of these two developments will make this process more accurate and successful in 2015.

5. The bionic person?
A little more sci-fi than my other four predictions, but I believe that 2015 will be the year that implants become a game changer - not the pacemaker of old, but the technology-based or artificially grown varieties.

The e-duar flexible implant has been shown to help paralysed rats move again and deliver drugs to specifically targeted sites. Lab grown muscles that develop from a patient's own cells have been shown to be a reality.

At the moment they are being developed to understand how drugs will interact with that specific patient (again personalising the treatment), but given that they are fully functioning and reactive it doesn't seem a great leap to think that someday they will be used to replace torn or damaged muscles within the donor's body.

Add to this mix the multiple other types of implants that are being developed and deployed at the moment, and this could be the year we move one step closer to seeing a non-fictional version of the bionic person.

Article by
Dave Bostock

Director of digital innovation at Cello Health Insight. He can be contacted at dbostock@cellohealth.com. Twitter: @dave_bostock

27th February 2015

From: Healthcare

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