2016 was an exciting year for tech interrupting the healthcare landscape and 2017 looks set to raise the bar even further. Here are our top ten predictions for what we think will be the most notable developments.
1. Artificial intelligence
Last year it was all about 'big data'. But, big data only becomes useful once it is processed and packaged into something which can then offer additional smart benefits. What we used to refer to as smart has evolved over the last year with big data meeting AI. AI machines, such as IBM Watson, were able to do incredible things including predicting new disease and identifying treatments simply by processing all of the available data out there. We also saw the emergence of a number of AI robots in 2016. We don't think we will see health bots in our homes and hospitals anytime soon, but we are likely to see significant medical advances through AI, particularly as data availability increases and people's concerns for sharing it lessens.
2. Virtual and alternative reality
Alongside AI, we predict that VR will be the main player over the next decade. Currently VR is booming in the gaming world and as the tech improves, making the experience more and more real, we will progress from virtual into alternative reality. It is this alternative reality that offers many potential therapeutic opportunities. But it's not AI and VR in isolation that has us most excited, rather the power of the two combined. As previously mentioned, there have been a good few robots making their entrance over the past year. The YuMi collaborative robot, currently used in engineering, is one that learns by observing its human equivalent and, once trained, can share that learning instantly with an infinite number of other YuMi robots. It is therefore theoretically feasible (although unlikely any time this year) that through using VR and robot AI, a surgeon could perform an operation in multiple locations, on multiple patients, all at the same time. Mind boggling!
3 & 4. Second generation wearables and Second generation mobile health
There is currently a significant void between everyday tech and healthcare, with a fear over safety, its credibility and impact on jobs all contributing to this. That said, consumers are becoming far more relaxed about their digital safety and data sharing through exposure and brand confidence. With second generation wearables, such as the sonar glasses that let visually impaired people navigate via vibrations, clothes, jewellery, etc and mobile health exploding on to the scene in 2017, the amount of additional 'valuable in the right hands' data will bear down like a tsunami on the healthcare system. And it's also looking likely that we'll see even further advancement in this space, with a shift from the development of consumer electronic devices to monitor for general well-being towards regulated medical devices designed for specific health conditions or target groups. However wearable tech companies that are not used to working in the healthcare space must first navigate various regulatory hurdles before this can become a reality.
Alongside AI, we predict that VR will be the main player over the next decade
5. Home diagnostics
Into that mix comes the next generation of home diagnostics, offering people the ability to capture basic medical diagnostic information, such as images of the inside of the ear or the throat, body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate. This data can then be sent directly from the patients to their healthcare professional for review. We predict that the healthcare system will be unable to push back on the deluge of tech data becoming available and once the walls come crashing down the transformation will be huge, with a significant impact on efficiency and diagnostics. Whether this will happen this year or not we don't yet know, but the cracks are showing and both patients and tech are getting through.
6. Mental Health
We think that mental health will be a big focus in 2017, with individuals and employers recognising the increasing importance of being self and mood aware. Car manufacturers, such as Hyundai, have already proposed mood stabilising cars whereby the cabin environment is controlled to reduce stress and improve alertness of drivers. We predict that there will be an increase in devices and therapies that will become more commonplace for mental well-being this year.
7. Surgical techniques
While not quite as 'off the shelf sexy' as the previous contenders in this list, we predict the implementation of some futuristic surgical techniques using medical tech developments that, due to their controversy, consumers don't often hear about. For example, in December 2017 we are set to witness the first head transplant on to a donor body. As controversial as it may be, it is history in the making and if successful will lead to a wave of new procedures that will make sci-fi a reality.
8. 3D printing
3D printing generated a wealth of interest when it first launched and there have already been a few incredible medical uses, such as printing hips, skin for burns victims and even heart valves. But we think greater strides will be taken towards printing replacement body parts this year. Combine this with head transplants and perhaps one day we'll see forever living bionic people… but don't worry, we don't predict that just yet!
9. Collaborative crossover
We do however believe that collaborative crossover will be the major wrecking ball that finally brings down the healthcare barrier we previously mentioned. For example, tech outfits collaborating with more unexpected emerging mega powers like SnapChat. We've already seen Google, Facebook and others in the mix last year, so further collaborative crossover between tech and digital brands that are seeking a world-leading reputation makes sense to us.
10. Digital efficiency
Last but not least we predict digital having a major impact on health efficiencies. The digital companies we see today have all come from agile start-up backgrounds and have grown to epic proportions through being smart, savvy, entrepreneurial, tenacious and courageous. Once they get their teeth into our somewhat archaic healthcare systems, we think that the way healthcare is run will be unrecognisable from what we have today and the big data that is available to us will get put to good use. Will this happen in 2017? We doubt it, but remain optimistic that we will start to see movement in this direction.
So there we have it - our predictions on the most notable tech developments in health for 2017. Of course, on the flipside the question remains as to what impact advances in tech, mobile and the internet will have on the health of our future generations. Life from the beginning has been about discovering new and exciting experiences. Doing so makes us happy, motivated and engaged, a feeling that is generated predominately by dopamine released in our brain. But are we now becoming overly connected and reliant on this dopamine hit to validate our existence? While we all, irrespective of age, rely heavily on tech and mobile devices these days, many millennials and Gen Z have grown up with the world and its experiences in the palm of their hand, creating instant gratification. The trouble is, because we now have this instant power at our fingertips, our attention span is shorter and we are less easily impressed. As a human race we are becoming rapidly desensitised. The number of likes, followers and engagement is also becoming an increasingly worrying standard our younger generations benchmark themselves against. Tech can, and will undoubtedly continue to have, a huge impact on society's mental and physical health. But the true impact on the millennial generation, the first to grow up knowing only the connected society we live in today, is yet to be seen. Perhaps one day we'll go full circle and see tech intervening to cure the exact diseases it created in the first place.
What does 2017 and beyond hold? Will the benefits of tech we've discussed here outweigh the impact on our mental and physical health? Or will its use create an even greater burden on our healthcare system?