Healthcare across the globe faces an unprecedented number of challenges. Amongst the most pressing is that people are living longer, and the relative proportion of elderly patients is growing.
Ubiquitous computing Drastic falls in cost are powering another computer revolution The Internet of Things is the next big idea in computing. It makes possible new business models and new forms of crime. Economist Films. While speculation about the state of technology in is obviously guesswork, here it is educated guesswork. But, the paper goes on, this simply means that, compared with other professions, they are the most vulnerable to automation. But analogies do not have to be perfect to be informative.
Although a positive in many ways, health systems are under increasing strain as countries work out how to care for greater numbers of people with the more complicated and resource-demanding conditions that develop in older age. In short, healthcare is becoming more complex, and there is more of it to provide. Costs are spiralling as a result. These are significant challenges to overcome, but new technologies are offering innovative solutions.
Though the industry has sometimes struggled to deliver on the promise of technological advancement—particularly when it comes to harnessing the potential of digital information technologies—healthcare innovation is at last taking off, leveraging advancements in artificial intelligence and big data, robotics, genomics and materials. Combined, these breakthroughs promise to lower the burden on providers and make health delivery more efficient at lower cost, while vastly improving quality of care. Machine learning algorithms, for instance, are demonstrating the near future possibility of automating vast swathes of expensive and resource-intensive medical imaging and diagnostic tasks that currently require highly trained human doctors, across specialties such as radiology and pathology through to ophthalmology and dermatology.
Robosurgeons are still a thing of the future, but augmented reality and virtual reality can already assist human doctors in training or practice to deliver safer care. In the longer term, however, we can expect a radical reimagining of how healthcare is itself delivered. New technological capabilities point to a future where healthcare provision is proactive and continuous, rather than reactive. This spans a wide range of stages of healthcare, from treatment options for sick people once conditions have developed, to being equipped to better manage and monitor our own health on a customised basis.
This is the area that Japanese general chemical company Toray calls 'life innovation'.
Toray developed its first pharmaceuticals and medical devices in the s, and the company has consistently grown its healthcare developments since then. Toray also works in the area of materials and components for medical devices and develops products that employ high-performance fibers and carbon fiber composite materials.
In various areas of daily life, Toray has produced healthcare products that improve human health and achieve longer life expectancy. It envisages a future of personalised and proactive health that is enabled by data gathered using smarter materials, through devices on wearables, and technology that's woven into our clothes. Sporting enthusiasts will be familiar with wearable devices that monitor your physical fitness.
But the potential of this category is much greater than personal fitness. By , cheap, connected and wearable sensors will record patients' health at home and on the go.
The next step is smart clothing. Toray's hitoe TM material, for instance, coats a fabric using polyester nanofiber with a conductive polymer that can detect faint biomedical signals from the skin. While hitoe TM is not a medical device, the technology envisages a future where such technologies will enable patients to record sophisticated measurements without wearing wet gel electrodes that irritate the skin or require hospitalisation. Patients can simply wear a smart, wired-up undershirt, which gives them the freedom to live normal lives while being continuously monitored if needed.
Monitoring such metrics has many benefits, and can even take the place of drugs. Consider Natural Cycles, a new app recently approved in Europe for use as a contraceptive with an efficacy equivalent to that of popular contraceptive pills. The app tells its users when in their cycle it is safe to have sex. Since the symptoms of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's are readily apparent in patterns of speech or motor control, many researchers are working using data from wearables and smartphones to measure everyday activities, such as walking and talking, to predict the onset of Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.
Continuously captured, real-time information can further alert medical professionals if there is a warning sign, such as high blood pressure or swelling, or a mix of factors that might be imperceptible to an individual but recognised by an algorithm as indicative of a potential stroke, for example. When aggregated, reams of data on patients' behavior—their symptoms and how they respond to certain courses of medication—will feed back into improvements in medicine and service design that can benefit all.
This has profound implications for global health, as we gain a more detailed understanding of how conditions develop and what symptoms may be linked. That in turn will help healthcare professionals spot conditions in individuals before they develop, which will allow doctors to treat them sooner, at a lower cost.
More data will also identify the drugs and treatments that do not work as effectively as advertised. Proliferation of data does however raise concerns about security and privacy. To be fruitful, data needs to be cross-referenced and shared widely, but healthcare information is extremely sensitive, and mistreatment can have dire consequences.
New kinds of patient data derived from genomic sequencing and sensors that reveal intimate detail about people's lives will bring particular challenges. We can store and collect such data, but how are we going to ensure its security? As businesses grow, regulations will be increasingly put in place and we need to be very well prepared. Mr Matsumura says it's a new era that has no legal precedent.
We are hoping guidelines will be put in place. Perhaps the most transformative trend in the future of healthcare is the promise of precision medicine. Every patient is unique: treatment should be unique too. As Barack Obama observed on the launch of the US government's Precision Medicine Initiative, we can already match a blood transfusion to a blood type. But what if you could match a cancer cure to an individual's genetic code or figure out the right dose of medicine by simply taking a temperature?
The fast-emerging ability to deliver on such promises is the result of breakthroughs in genomic medicine and computer science, enabled by big data. DNA can be sequenced faster and more cost efficiently than ever before, and used to understand more genetic markers of disease. At the same time, computing power now allows us to manage and analyse vast amounts of data, whether patient metrics from wearables or genome sequencing, while machine learning algorithms can process these data sets to yield new insights.
Germany has changed its laws to stop tech giants buying up scores of startups that might one day pose a threat.
Their ability to switch creates competition that should boost choice and raise standards. The result should be an economy in which consumers are king and information and power are dispersed. It would be less cosy for the tech giants. The European approach has risks. It may prove hard to achieve true interoperability between firms.
So far, GDPR has proved clunky. The open flow of data should not cut across the concern for privacy. But the big firms will be loth to split their businesses into two continental silos. Europe is edging towards cracking the big-tech puzzle in a way that empowers consumers, not the state or secretive monopolies. If it finds the answer, Americans should not hesitate to copy it—even if that means looking to the lands their ancestors left behind.
Join them. Subscribe to The Economist today.
Media Audio edition Economist Films Podcasts. New to The Economist? Sign up now Activate your digital subscription Manage your subscription Renew your subscription.
Science and technology. Climate sciencePredicting the climatic future is riddled with uncertainty. But researchers are doing the best they can. Sep Technological and scientific innovations hope to increase agricultural production, while lowering environmental costs. It has been over years since Thomas Malthus predicted that population growth would outstrip food supply. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a UN.
Topics up icon. Blogs up icon.