Is Emerging Tech the Answer to Healthcare’s Problems… And Covid-19?

Covid-19 caught the world off guard in 2020. But the slow pace of digital transformation in healthcare didn’t help. Now, emerging technologies transforming healthcare – and turning the tide in the pandemic fight in the process.

It’s no secret that emerging technologies have helped to generate a deluge of information in the modern era. In most sectors, companies are now extracting new business value from their data, but there’s one sector that is consistently behind the times: healthcare.

Around the world, healthcare systems have suffered from a lack of interoperability that has impeded patient treatment in a variety of ways. In terms of digital technology, this interoperability failure means that health records are unnecessarily difficult to retrieve across the health service – for instance, if a patient moves to another county, state or health provider zone. Delays like these could slow down treatment.

After all, healthcare is a matter of life and death. But with proper data deployment and utilisation, healthcare professionals could make faster, better diagnoses and accelerate treatment – ultimately saving lives.

Emerging technologies are starting to remedy these issues, and in the era of Covid-19 the benefits they are bringing are more than welcome. But why have healthcare providers failed to exploit their data’s true value so far? And how are tech companies helping to fix this and turn the tide in the Covid-19 fight?


Data Access Is Limiting Healthcare Provision Worldwide

The idea that healthcare professionals and patients should be able to access vital health information as and when they need it sounds both simple and necessary. With it, healthcare professionals could have all the information they need to properly treat patients at speed, tailoring treatment to the patient’s unique medical history.

But creating a system that digitises millions of health records and provides secure access to healthcare professionals and patients has proven more difficult than initially thought.

In 2016, the UK Health Secretary pledged that every patient in England would have access to their medial records online by the end of the year. Although this focus may have left medical professionals in the lurch, at the time it did provide a ray of hope for wider data utilisation within the NHS. But this was a bold pledge. Four years on and UK patients still can’t access their medical records online.

Meanwhile, electronic health records (EHR) in the US have been the victim of market competition. Some healthcare and EHR providers in the country attempt to limit data sharing in an effort to retain more customers. But if patients require care outside of the provider’s remit – either geographical or otherwise – doctors may not be able to access a patient’s health records in time to treat them.

France has made more promising strides towards creating a central electronic repository for medical records. GPs, pharmacies, labs, hospitals and other healthcare establishments have secure access to the EHRs. But strong resistance from France’s medical professionals has meant that EHRs aren’t available for much of the population. The system has made progress in the last couple of years, but care coordination is still wanting, to the detriment of patients.

Now, Big Tech is stepping up to try and fix interoperability issues in healthcare.


How Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare Is Enhancing Interoperability

When it comes to interoperability, Microsoft continues to develop and rollout a fix it calls Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare. Its aim is to provide trusted and integrated cloud capabilities that ‘deliver better experiences, better insights, and better care.’

Microsoft’s success so far in this area comes from its own championship of interoperability. Almost two decades ago, the company was chastised by the European Commission for its lack of interoperability. Instead of throwing a tantrum, Microsoft took the rulings to heart and pivoted. It saw a unique competitive advantage in becoming a market leader in interoperability, so embraced open source and Linux to make that happen. This is an ethos that Microsoft has since brought to healthcare.

The cloud offering not only makes it easier for patients, doctors and other healthcare professionals to access EHRs, it also enables seamless data access for AIs, pharmaceuticals and medical technology companies. Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare is helping clinicians collaborate more effectively, aiding care collaboration and enabling personalised care on a mass scale. AI and Internet of Things (IoT) support is simultaneously allowing for continuous patient monitoring that can keep tabs on recovery, rehabilitation and help manage disabilities and chronic illnesses.

The key to Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare’s success is twofold. Firstly, Microsoft has developed a solution with a seamless ability to move data between repositories. As a result, any authorised person who needs access to EHRs and data can get it, thereby enhancing the level of care provided. Secondly, and more importantly, Microsoft understands that it can’t be the panacea to all the healthcare system’s problems. That’s why it’s working with over 55 partners to address health data issues, building a formidable platform that’s starting to enhance healthcare provision worldwide.


Interoperability isn’t the only issue when it comes to healthcare. Making accurate diagnoses quickly is just as important, especially when it comes to mysterious illnesses. This is where AIs like IBM’s Watson are leading the way.


Accelerating Diagnosis with IBM’s Watson

However, it isn’t just an issue of accessing EHRs. Healthcare professionals also work with a limited knowledge on which to make their diagnoses. For patients with mysterious illnesses or difficult-to-diagnose diseases, greater access to information and data could accelerate diagnosis and improve patient prospects. This isn’t to disparage the expertise of healthcare professionals, but no one person can be expected to know everything – even House struggled to diagnose patients…

This is where IBM may help. While Microsoft is providing a new platform to increase interoperability, IBM is deploying its AI to utilise data to make faster diagnoses.

Since its creation, Watson has always had a particular focus on healthcare. Its value lies in its ability to quickly process known symptoms and correlate these with its understanding of all known diseases and illnesses. Watson is then able to identify possible diagnoses which a healthcare professional can then rule out or address.

In this way, Watson acts as an assistant to healthcare professionals. It empowers them with a greater pool of knowledge against which to compare symptoms, identify diagnoses, and test for confirmation. In the best-case scenario, this could help doctors accurately diagnose a patient in a matter of days instead of months or even years.

If healthcare systems around the world were to combine these two emerging technologies – Watson and Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare – we could see vast improvements in performance, now.


Emerging Tech & the Covid-19 Pandemic

During the current pandemic, the above two examples of emerging tech have helped alleviate some of the strain on healthcare.

Microsoft’s cloud-based solution has allowed healthcare professionals to virtually collaborate with colleagues and conduct appointments with patients. Meanwhile, the AI and IoT functionality has enabled remote monitoring of recovery and treatments.

When it comes to Watson, healthcare professionals have made faster diagnoses. The result has been less time spent by patients in the GP surgery, clinic or hospital for tests – and less exposure to the virus.

But emerging technologies aren’t limited to these two examples from Big Tech. Top billing goes to AI and the cloud. Governments could deploy AI to detect the virus, individuals with fever, and suspected Covid-19 symptoms by using thermal imaging, computer vision, and cloud computing. The cloud more generally could be used to model the path of the diseases, with big data being used to efficiently analyse and take action to prevent disease transmission and movement.

Some scientists also believe that blockchain has a role to play in disease control. The distributed ledger system could help to effectively manage and monitor the supply chain, providing a reliable account of disease movement on affected shipments. More effective tracing – and quarantining – would result.

Elsewhere, companies could further roll-out the use of drones and robotics to limit human exposure to the virus. Unmanned vehicles and drones could undertake some logistics roles to keep supply chains moving with only remote human interactivity. Robotics more generally could undertake repetitive jobs in hazardous environments around hospitals to limit unnecessary exposure.

Finally, smart ambulances and wearables have offered a route to speedier treatments in the UK. One start-up has worked with the NHS to enable patients to receive in-transit consultant care via video link before they reach hospital. Trials have already shown that stroke victims receiving clot-busting treatment within the critical timeframe of three hours rose from just 5% to a staggering 41%, which also passed savings of £19m onto the NHS East of England trust.


A Healthier Future Is Emerging

Covid-19 caught a lot of the world off-guard in 2020. But it’s clear from the pace of technological innovation a clear path forward is now emerging. A path that removes barriers to data accessibility and enhances diagnoses, disease modelling, and treatments.

Now the onus is on healthcare providers, government bodies and the wider medical world to embrace the available emerging technologies. It isn’t just a better way out of the current pandemic. This type of digital transformation will provide the safeguards we need against the next one. The world can’t wait.

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