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The High-Tech Future of Home Healthcare


Healthcare is undergoing a huge transformation, with a multitude of new technologies impacting every aspect of the industry. One of the sectors that will change dramatically is home healthcare; currently associated with a medical professional visiting a patient's home, it will come to encompass a much wider variety of medical services that we can access remotely.


With healthcare systems around the world set to face serious challenges in the coming years, this shift from hospital-administered care to a more personal management of our well-being - focused on prevention rather than cure - comes at an opportune moment. And although we focus on the United States here, many other nations face similar issues; the adoption of new home healthcare technologies will be a global trend, and that wave of adoption will present significant opportunities for business. 



The Current Diagnosis

The US is facing a dual crisis when it comes to its healthcare system. First, and well covered in the media, is the rising cost of healthcare. Thanks to high administrative costs, an opaque pricing structure for drugs and medical equipment, and the nature of the treatment we receive (among other factors), coverage has become unaffordable for many. The second and less publicized problem is the impending shortage of medical professionals - the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts that there will be a shortfall of between 40,000 and 100,000 by 2030. This is already a serious issue in certain geographic areas, with 80% of rural communities lacking adequate access to qualified healthcare professionals.

And because healthcare demands and expenditure are higher for the elderly, our ageing population is only set to exacerbate these problems. The number of over-65s in the US is projected to almost double to 88 million by 2050, while the working-age population that supports them may even decline in some areas. We desperately require new methods that improve access to affordable healthcare and limit the amount of expensive treatments we require - so let's take look at some of the technologies which will help us achieve that.
Mobile Applications

The smartphone revolution has inspired a huge influx of mobile applications designed to help people manage their health independently - an industry often termed 'mobile health' or 'mHealth', the market is expected to be worth $20.7 billion by 2019. We can divide patient-focused apps into three main categories based on their function; wellness tools that monitor indicators such as diet, exercise and stress, informational tools that provide advice about symptoms and treatments, and consultation tools, which allow users to book an appointment with a doctor or carry out one remotely.

These tools have the potential to transform the nature of healthcare and reduce our reliance on overstretched facilities and professionals - in one study, they were shown to cut emergency room visits by 87%. However, despite the vast number of available apps and some impressive download statistics, research has shown that usage remains comparatively low. Only a small percentage of apps have large numbers of downloads, and even fewer are used repeatedly. Too many of them just provide information that can be obtained through a website; and while some physicians have started prescribing them, the lack of integration with electronic health records is a major barrier to that.  

Thankfully, it looks like progress is being made. For example, companies such as UK firm Babylon are integrating machine learning, allowing their system to acquire expertise through large numbers of patient interactions. The idea being that they will be able to offer a fast, accurate diagnosis and possible treatment options, all through a smartphone app - an experience that if achieved, should certainly encourage adoption. Natural language processing technology offers the possibility of being able to chat with an AI system as you would with a human doctor. And this year's introduction of a new standard for how electronic health records share data with outside apps (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources or FHIR) is a very welcome step that will aid developers.

Wearables

Another recent trend is the rise of healthcare wearables. They are perhaps most commonly found in the form of a wristband that monitors physical activity, but we are now able to track many other aspects of our health too, including sleep patterns, blood pressure, body temperature and stress. And although there is some debate about how effective these devices are in terms of encouraging exercise or aiding weight loss, there is no doubt that keeping an eye on these indicators can be invaluable for the most at risk, helping them manage existing conditions and avoid being hospitalized.

Not only can this information be fed into a smartphone or tablet to be tracked at home, but it may also be sent to doctors for a specialist diagnosis. The Pennsylvania-based company Cerora has developed a portable biosensor headset, the data from which is used to perform a brain health assessment. In the future, other more sophisticated biosensors will likely become available for use at home as well, such as stick-on ECG monitors or cholesterol detectors woven into clothes. It might be stretching the idea of a 'wearable', but smart pills that detect when they have been ingested could even help remind people to take their medication.

Telemedicine

While self-monitoring and artificial intelligence systems should reduce how often we need to interact with a medical professional, there will be times when a human consultation is required - we are a long way from replicating that level of emotional intelligence and a reassuring nature at any rate. To a certain extent however, this can still be achieved through a virtual meeting, offering convenience for both patient and doctor. As we mentioned earlier, some are already conducting these consults through specialized apps, others via webcam, and more than 15 million Americans received some kind of medical care remotely in 2015. The industry is definitely growing, but is not yet well-established; some consumers are put off by insurance coverage and privacy worries, and there are challenges within the medical profession when it comes to regulating these services.

One technology that could play a major role in telemedicine going forward is virtual reality (VR), which would make it easier for patients to demonstrate their symptoms. A report by Global Industry Inc estimates the global market for virtual reality in medicine will reach $3.8 billion by 2020, and though much of the hardware will initially be located in hospitals or health centers, more and more patients will be able to connect from their homes as the price of consumer VR products goes down. Looking a little further ahead, doctors are likely to inform these 'virtual check-ups' using data from the biosensors we discussed earlier, and universal translator technology could improve access both in the US and other countries.

Opportunities for Business
 
All of these developments are helping to fuel the global home healthcare market, which is growing at about 9% per year, and predicted to be worth $349.8 billion by 2020. But enterprise has still only scratched the surface of what is possible; the market is fragmented, and by embracing the very latest technology companies have the chance to set themselves apart from the competition. The most successful will recognize that the long-term future of home healthcare lies in the combined power of what we have discussed here - mobile apps that bring together electronic health records, wearables data, AI diagnostic services and telemedicine portals become much more powerful than any single tool.    

No doubt there are challenges ahead; any business dealing in biosensors and personal medical data will of course be subject to increased regulation, and over time we will see a more concentrated, competitive market. Particularly with tech giants such as Amazon looking to enter the space, things may become difficult for smaller firms, so perhaps more opportunities will come in partnering with those bigger players to provide expertise in specialist areas. Overall however, the home healthcare market is ripe for disruption; there is a clear need for these products, the required technologies are available - it is simply a question of who will take the initiative and bring them to consumers.


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